Summary (TLDR Version)

If you want to show a young girl masturbating and receiving oral sex in the name of depicting adolescent sexuality artistically, then this would seem to oblige you also to show her male partner’s erection and masturbation as well, or else it seems more like your interest hinges on prurience than artistic truth.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: L. Debeurme’s (2006) [2] Lucille

On the last page of this book, readers discover it comprises only part 1 of a (presumably two-part) work, the second being Debeurme’s soon-to-be-released Renée. Given that this next book introduces the titular and never previously mentioned character to the “series”, the sense of “continuation” comes off as pretty scant.[3] As such, it seems fair that people would take Lucille as a stand-alone work.

Moreover, while the ad-text for the book claims it

is more than a story about anorexia, alcoholism, and adolescence. It’s a story of love amidst a tragedy, full of the halting awkwardness of life and the operatic grandeur of teenage emotion

a reviewer remarks of it,

While I think the story was interesting, I feel like plots centered around misunderstood teenagers [are] a bit hackneyed. We have all seen it before in graphic novels, movies, TV, and literature. While I am always looking for people to put a new [spin] on it, Lucille does not do that.[4]

I mostly agree, especially where the ad-text on the book’s cover resorts to the disingenuous phrase, “Somehow two lonely misfits form an instant connection” (emphasis added). One can hardly take that somehow seriously, since nothing more profound than the convention of narrative ensures the two misfits will get together.

Other reviewers, of course, find the book and narrative arc compelling, but what all reviewers do not mention, and which the ad-text obscures behind the phrase “with the intoxicating boldness of youth, they journey together across Europe, discovering each other” (emphasis added)[5] involves their sexuality; specifically, the depiction of Arthur eating Lucille out. Later, he less visually graphically fucks her, and this follows after much earlier in the book where Lucille masturbates.

I put the matter bluntly so as not to permit the Lolita apologetics to immediately take over the discourse. And whatever pertinent discussion one might have about (the depiction of) adolescent sexuality, which certainly deserves discussion, one can also hardly ignore the ways that patriarchal discourse licenses certain varieties.

Woody Allen has previously and lately fallen hard for accusations of sexual impulses toward females too much younger. One might have seen it coming. In his movie Manhattan, he depicts an affair with a 17-year-old girl, and in his (hilarious) Love and Death, an Orthodox priest declares that the secret to happiness in life “is blond, 12-year-old girls, preferably two, if you can get them.” Nabokov’s Lolita, of course, artfully (and intentionally) provides all of the plausible deniability that US patriarchal culture requires if one would give voice to the sexual desire Allen failed to provide enough cover for. Debeurme similarly wallows in it here, I suggest.

But first, let me make clear: I have, as yet, refrained from passing moral judgment on this. Whether Nabokov got a boner writing his book—and he probably should have—I think he more deliberately, even wickedly, composed a trap to “out” patriarchal culture. Allen, by contrast, places the trap in Love and Death in a joke and in Manhattan puts it in a context where seventeen years old won’t seem “unreasonable” to most people (perhaps males especially). Meanwhile, the underwear kiss in Moonrise Kingdom or simply Team Edward and Team Jacob from Twilight show us other ways to (attempt to) encode the adult impulse toward youthful flesh.

It seems asinine on two levels to try to label this paedophilic. First, the clinical definition of paedophilia requires a preferential attraction to underage humans, and implied in this involves the continuum: the younger the youth, the fewer those who will have a less severe problem with it. The purse holders might not have allowed Allen to make Manhattan with a 15-year-old girl, and Nabokov’s text benefits immensely from not actually and visually making evident before the viewer’s eyes the object of H. Humbert’s infatuation. Mann’s Death in Venice benefits in the same way. But second, and perhaps much more importantly, we have with things like Team Jacob and Team Edward, Moonrise Kingdom, and the like a depiction, not an actuality—a figurative experience, not a literal one.

Now, it might make some (or many) uncomfortable to confront the fact of adolescent sexuality, much less to become aroused in its presence. Nonetheless, it seems wholly disingenuous to attempt to denounce all occurrences of this as pathological, less because it seems patently untrue, but more because such mountainous moralizing totally obscures what actually occurs in the discourse of culture.

So, again, I intend no heavy-handed moralizing about the graphic depictions of (female teenage) sexuality in Debeurme’s book—I reserve that for the disingenuous silence about it. However, one observation seems relevant here. Assume that Allen likes nubile young flesh, and that that has found expression at times in his films; for Debeurme, he specifically notes that Lucille can only get off when sexually fantasizing about an older, fat pig of a teacher, and in Debeurme’s next book, he moves this factor or theme front and centre: the titular heroine “becomes obsessed with a married jazz musician twice her age.” One hardly needs much feminist intelligence to tease out the various strands that can follow from this.

Whatever the merits or problematics of this, Debeurme notably elides male adolescent sexuality; more precisely, while Debeurme has several panels of Lucille in full frontal nudity, we have nothing of the sort with Arthur (her admirer and lover). On one hand, this makes Debeurme’s depiction seem less like an exploration of a theme and more simply a depiction of an interest (whether one decides a prurient one or not). But more significantly, as the feminists Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975) assert,[6] feminism has no automatic objection to works of art by and about men, so long as any claims in those works to speak for “humanity” in general actually do speak (1) to some literally human experience and (2) not simply a “male experience” generalized to “human experience”.

In Hemingway’s ghastly For Whom The Bell Tolls, a woman who had been sexually assaulted (and is currently under the protection of another woman) gets “handed off” to the male protagonist, and Hemingway proceeds to make this man’s kinder and gentler fucking bring about a healing in the woman. Penthouse fantasy this already seems, that he will stay in the area only three days, rather than entering into any kind of actual relationship or long-term interaction with the woman, only makes the specific healing magic of his penis more garish.

At first, Debeurme seems not to resort to anything quite so vacuous, but in fact the duration of Lucille’s and Arthur’s time together doesn’t seem to cover much time. In any case, Arthur attempts suicide (and winds up in a coma at the end of the book), so the arc Debeurme supplies analogizes with Hemingway’s: some gentle heterosexual vaginal contact (followed by the removal of the male doing that favour) at least potentially has magical, healing effects. One might also observe that this generous act (in both books) does not suffice for the males; they remain woefully traumatized.

Two paths thus fork in the garden of culture: path along a critique of the patriarchal license to exhibit nubile female sexuality in cultural works (like Nabokov, Debeurme, Allen, &c), which critique might become indignant about “pornography” or cast aspersions on the creators as “perverts” or whatnot, and another that objects to the general paucity of such “pornography” or “perversion” in cultural works as regards depictions of nubile male sexuality. I remember hearing that, at least at one time, the film industry prohibited full frontal male nudity, which prohibition Bertolucci spectacularly violated in one shot that tracks John Malkovich’s penis in The Sheltering Sky.

Whether any such prohibition exists (or ever did), one encounters the visual depiction of female genitals extremely more often than male genitals. And Debeurme’s book offers no exception. Consequently (as Heilbrun and Stimpson make clear) to pretend this book speaks to “adolescence” does not hold water. More accurately, this book depicts a male fantasy of adolescence (whether one insists the depiction seems prurient, or pruriently motivated, or not).

One way this really comes across concerns how Lucille visually transforms, sometimes in adjacent frames. On the one hand, the vicissitudes of her anorexia seem all over the place. At one point, she finds herself hospitalized, and then gets better, then worse. The issue here doesn’t involve whether Debeurme has “correctly” depicted the course of anorexia, but that Lucille’s “attractiveness” (a major theme of her psychology, as Debeurme presents it) seems visually all over the map as well. He does, at times, show us her naked body when in such a weakened state that she can’t even stand, but over the course of the same series of frames, Debeurme doesn’t draw her face as belying any gauntness whatsoever.

In part, this reads as if we see Lucille from Arthur’s point of view, but of course this becomes narratively untenable eventually, since we see her not from Arthur’s point of view most of the time; rather, it makes the gaze directed at her originate from Debeurme (and thus also the reader), therefore, even when Arthur occupies scenes with her.

Just as it seems gratuitous to accuse Debeurme (or Nabokov, or Allen) of “paedophilia” simply on the grounds of expressing in a work of fiction a tacit male privilege of patriarchy, i.e., the violation of young women and girls, it would seem equally non sequitur to rage against Lucille as child pornography.[7] The principal crime would, in any case, more involve good taste, since the patriarchal privilege of male sexual license effectively has no limit—rape, incest, confinement, abduction, no matter the age of the female, continue to go largely unchecked, so long as certain practices do not get into the public eye, at which point public opinion will have to make the usual disingenuous and condemnatory noise, up to and including actual criminal prosecution in sufficiently egregious cases.

It appears from the general reception to Debeurme’s book, given the practically universal silence around the fact that it contains an explicit depiction of Lucille masturbation and two sequences of Lucille and Arthur have sex, that he has managed to avoid an egregious case. He has successfully encoded the prurient interest of the content behind a plausible deniability, however we want to construe that. Certainly, if Paglia can credit oglers of Rafael’s David with paedophilic impulses—and if Joyce via Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can disingenuously bracket out Eros from any appreciation of Art—then wrapping “child pornography” in the “operatic emotions” of adolescence has done enough to allow the oglers to go on unmolested.

But what rather introduces a crack into the armour of this plausible deniably concerns the absence of cock, Arthur’s specifically. Debeurme goes out of his way both to display Lucille’s genitals (and breasts) while keeping Arthur’s out of sight. Certainly, homosexual males in the twentieth century have noted the general absence of cock even in heterosexual (and thus seemingly universal) depictions of love stories—the prohibition noted above, if true, only confirming all the more the male bias behind the display of female genitals in film and not males’.

Partly I’d like to make a conspiracy of this—to make this a male mimicry of the invisibility of naked female genitals relative to males. What do I mean? Paglia (and others) note the blunt fact that when a male gets naked not only can he hide his junk, more tellingly perhaps, he cannot hide any sexual arousal. Women may leverage the reverse, while taking advantage of the indisputability of male arousal. Males might offset this disadvantage by prohibiting any disclosure of cock whatsoever. And so we might say the prohibition in film (if factual) originates there.

Like I said, I’d like to make a conspiracy of this, but it seems far more simply the case that the overwhelming predominance of males in filmmaking (gay or straight up to the advent of gay cinema) meant simply that no one wanted to film a cock. We might imagine as well that some meddler (male or female) might have argued that putting cock on the silver screen would permit women to see them, and that might have who knows what kind of untold consequences. It might arouse women to hysterical frenzies. Or to a grave displeasure once they discovered that what hubby packed back at home didn’t reach the maximum possible or even a national average.[8]

It seems more simply the case: Debeurme has no (sexual or prurient) interest in Arthur’s penis and so feels no compulsion (artistic or otherwise) to supply it. We might compare this to the underage penises and sexuality depicted in Hernandez’s (2014)[9] The Love Bunglers, but that makes for a different blog-post.

Beyond this, I leave it to others who have experienced anorexia to weigh in on the merits or failures of its depiction here—by this, I mean the psychological aspect of anorexia. In terms of a narrative theme, Debeurme paints Lucille as a self-perceived ugly duckling, whose cure (not unlike Maria in Hemingway’s novel mentioned above) seems merely one admirer willing to sexually touch her. I question how integrally Debeurme has combined these themes, of anorexia and Lucille’s desire for admiration.

Of course, obviously, in the real world these intertangle frequently, but from what I know of anorexia, it can disambiguate entirely from yearning for (romantic) attention entirely. And Debeurme (accidentally) supplies points in his book where anorexia seems an inessential, sometimes gratuitous, element in the story. I mean, for instance, the theme of sexual loneliness appears in the book before anorexia, and the way he draws Lucille inconsistently presents her, even when she has nearly died from anorexia. Again, his gaze seems more to compel him to draw her in a more idealized way at times, taking us into that eighteenth and nineteenth male authorial world where holy halos of light would descend sometimes on consumptives; at a time when Poe could insist that the most compelling narrative centres on the death of a beautiful woman.

It doesn’t seem to take much effort to sense the Othering going on in these examples, the masculinist version of Orientalizing that makes “woman” an object both of pity and lust, something in need of a heroic rescue on the one hand that also has no permission to decline the hero’s request for a very particular reward. In this light, we might understand Arthur’s otherwise absurdly unmotivated suicide attempt. The ad-text on the back of the book might file it under the operatic emotions of adolescence, but one might similarly file it away as Debeurme eliminating a rival for Lucille, as it were.

A silly proposal, of course, because just as people labor under the “widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control” (178),[10] no jealous libido must exist for the creation and maintenance of patriarchal systems of narrative control. We might just as readily insist the “reader” prompts Arthur’s self-removal from the narrative, on the grounds that Debeurme merely expressed the Zeitgeist (or the market’s forces) by doing so.

The emphasis of the gesture in any case centers on Lucille’s greater abandonment (now alone and in Italy) apart from whatever angst or justification Arthur might offer. This makes his suicide attempt more a contrivance than an actual turn of the plot, so in the same way it seems that Lucille’s anorexia serves more as a device to make her beleaguered and beset, rather than an actual factor in her fate. In short, whether for Debeurme or the reader, the anorexia functions to make Lucille more vulnerable (to a predatory gaze). We may compare, for instance, the fact that Arthur has OCD; or, more accurately, he gets shown depicting compulsiveness (specifically, he counts things) but not only does this have nothing like the hugely destructive effects that Lucille’s “mental condition” does, it also manifests as a point of interest that builds up Arthur’s depiction, in contrast to the “disease” exhibited by Lucille. His “mental illness” makes him interesting; hers gets used to make her pitiful.

I suspect, for these reasons, this book would more often appeal to males, in the same way that many madwomen in attics in any number of male-authored books (and movies) more serve the end of gratifying the male gaze, rather than telling any authentic story of female experience. Again to point to Heilbrun and Stimpson, when a book purports to depict a “human” experience but does so too exclusively through a “male” lens, then this justifies feminism calling such a book out and examining more closely whatever (deeper)motivation resides within it.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Debeurme, L. (2006). Lucille (trans. E. Gauvin). Portland, OR: Top Shelf., pp. 1–544.

[3] Summaries for both books run:

LUCILLE: Winner of the Rene Goscinny Prize! With Lucille, Ludovic Debeurme takes on the difficult world of adolescence, following the life of a young anorexic woman and the difficult relationships she has with others, who have significant problems of their own. Influenced by psychoanalysis and the exploration of dreams, Debeurme explores life and fantasies with elegant clean graphics and a profound love of the games of childhood.

RENÉE: French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme returns with a devastating sequel to his prize-winning graphic novel LUCILLE. While Lucille moves back in with her overbearing mother and Arthur serves time in prison for murder, new character Renee becomes obsessed with a married jazz musician twice her age. Debeurme’s haunting border-less panels follow these three lovers between dreams and reality, twining their stories together into a poignant and universal search for love.

[4] The context for this comment from the review runs:

The graphic novel follows Lucille who is a troubled anorexic teen with few friends. She struggles with her relationship with her mother and often feels alone in the world. Her only confidante is an older woman in the geriatric unit of the hospital. At first, it seems that she is just your average conflicted adolescent. However, it becomes clear that she is suffering from numerous issues that are rooted in her unhappiness for herself. The second main character in the graphic novel is Arthur who is also a troubled youth. We first meet him when he is trying to convince one of his peers to sell his soul to Satan in exchange for a date with a girl and good grades. It is soon revealed to the reader that Arthur is dysfunctional because of his father’s alcoholism and rage. Though Arthur loves his father, he is pained by his father’s violent actions. Of course Arthur and Lucille meet and they are able to find in each other the love and acceptance that no one has shown them. That is until they journey out on their own and realize that the grown-up world may be even less forgiving than their adolescent world.

While I think the story was interesting, I feel like plots centered around misunderstood teenagers is a bit hackneyed. We have all seen it before in graphic novels, movies, TV, and literature. While I am always looking for people to put a new pin on it, “Lucille” does not do that. Additionally, I felt like the characters were beyond depressing. I love dark stories and crave unhappy characters in my novels. Yet, this went even a bit too far for me! I typically love simplistic graphics when reading a serious novel. Unfortunately, these illustrations seemed to make the story even more drab and depressing. Granted, the final page states that it is the end of part 1; therefore, one can assume that there will be multiple parts to this story. I hope that the future parts are a bit more developed than this installment and that the author turns away from the clichéd plot of the poor outcast kids finding each other. Still, if there is a part two…I doubt I will pick it up.

[5] To say they journey across Europe with the intoxicating boldness of youth frames things too hyperbolically, since they only go from France to Italy. One expects, from “intoxicating boldness” a rather more wide-ranging and audacious trip.

[6] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[7] Whatever rules or laws exist about the depiction of female masturbation by 16-year-olds on France, or oral sex between teenagers.

[8] Men too might suffer a similar shock and humiliation from a too unfavourable comparison.

[9] Hernandez, J. (2014). The love bunglers. Seattle, Washington, USA: Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

[10] Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press

Summary (TLDR Version)

Between death and a fate worse than death, which would you choose.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gaiman, McKean, & Klein’s (2012) [2] Black Orchid

I often start in on books using claims made in the promo or ad text on the back to illustrate how wide of those claims there the book actually goes. In its own way, this makes my reply sometimes as much about how the book gets received as the book itself, some might say unfairly.

In the present case, by contrast, if I start with Mikal Gilmore’s[3] introduction to Black Orchid, it may in fact become the sole and only focus of this reply. With graphic novels (books of fiction in general) I tend to avoid introductions, because they often have the effect (intended or not) of framing how you should read the book. Here, Gilmore announces, “the tale you are about to read begins in violence … but in this tale, something unanticipated happens” (4).

His major claim for the book, in fact, consists of insisting it amounts to a game-changer for the genre. This certainly seems valid for McKean’s contribution, although the work here falls short of his subsequent work, but whether the story deserves such praise remains far more doubtful. Especially in the terms that Gilmore states.

To begin with, he makes a great deal of the fact that the heroine gets killed at the outset, prefaced by her murderer declaring, “Hey, you know something? I’ve read the comics … I’m not going to lock you up in the basement before interrogating you … then leave you alone to escape. That stuff is so dub. But you know what I am going to do? I’m going to kill you. Now” (4). He ignores two major details here. First, the murderer first shoots Black Orchid in the head, but this does not kill her because, as he says, while “our data files on you are pretty thin on hard facts, … they do claim you’ve got some kind of bullet proof body” (14). So then he burns her alive and also blows up the top of the building. Second, this only kills one body the Black Orchid has; her consciousness, or something like it, regrows in another body.

So, in point of fact, contrary to Gilmore’s claim, the villain does not kill Black Orchid—or, we might say even more precisely, to kill Black Orchid involves more than the usual. Certainly, Gaiman announces don’t expect the expected by providing a scene like this at the outset. But just like Alan Moore’s swamp thing, which provides at least one of the obvious backdrops for Gaiman’s book, the scene does less to change the comic genre than to orient the reader (in this case) to the tacit immortality of the heroine.

Having apparently misread the opening, Gilmore says:

Either way, BLACK ORCHID works against all these conventions of violence: it begins in the horror of reality and its works its way towards a lovely dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace. As a result, BLACK ORCHID is the first major work of comic book literature that uses violence as a critique of the uses of violence (6).

That he calls this the “first major work of comic book literature” to pursue this theme suggests that others have pursued it, albeit in “minor” form. So we would have to wonder why Black Orchid deserves credit as the first, especially when Moore’s Swamp Thing has already (more than once) demonstrated that endings other than violence may solve the conventional villain-crisis of comic books. This happens, for instance, immediately with the story arc of Jason Woodrue, who has hijacked the world power of all plant life to destroy mammalian life on the planet. Swamp Thing literally asks the plants to stop their destruction (explaining that if all mammalian life were dead, plant life would die off as well). Moore also sets up this resolution by surveying the many, many powers that other superheroes have, showing how none of them can intervene into this kind of world-destruction, and so it makes the simplicity and elegance of the solution to the crisis that he (and Swamp Thing) articulate all the more amazing.

So, the solution of nonviolence already has a spectacular representation. But even in the present case, Gilmore seems to fatally misunderstand what he reads. Confronted by the proponents of violence in her sanctuary of nonviolence, Black Orchid does not respond with retributive violence when a human gets killed there (expressly against her wishes), but she also explicitly warns her opponents if his forces ever interfere with her again she will retaliate. He replies, “Sure. You’re the one who’s so down on violence!” and she replies, “I didn’t mention violence. But if he persists … I will find whatever it is that he loves … and I will take it away from him” (152).

She promises a quid pro quo, but it will not come in the form of violence, which in this book generally means death outright. Why Gilmore thinks this marks a game-changer, when virtually all comic book heroes, even a thoroughly violent one like Batman, has specifically and on principle not killed bad guys, seems baffling. The Joker seems to have endlessly enjoyed tormenting Batman with this point, and certainly Arkham Asylum, as perhaps the most laxly run containment facility ever, similarly serves to make the heroes’ refusals to kill (once and for all) their problematic villains probably the single-most important contribution of comic literature in general to the world.

Meanwhile, Gilmore seems to miss entirely the substance of Black Orchid’s threat: most succinctly, that one may suffer fates worse than death—fates suffered, in fact, by everyone in Arkham Asylum. One may say, precisely, that what containment in Arkham inflicts amounts to a denial of what the villain loves: the freedom to torment others and cause mayhem, &c. And since those in the asylum spend a great deal of time escaping, we may assume they don’t much enjoy their confinement.

Similarly, Black Orchid promises retaliation by taking away what others love—even if what they love amounts to power, opportunities for cruelty, circumstances to practice the fine art of sexual psychopathy, &c. Thus, the eschewal of (the violence of) death doesn’t come with anything resembling the truly radical solution Swamp Thing arrived at: to speak to the interests of those who plan to destroy the world.

One may insist that you can’t simply talk to the Joker or Poison, &c. First, let me say that heroes need villains, so making villains irredeemably immune to any form of rationality, therapy, or even alternative satisfaction to whatever mania inflicts them first and foremost serves the aims of an on-going narrative. But to insist on this absolutely impenetrable character tries to argue—or at least provides an image of—some theoretically imaginary or real limit to the power of human speech. Some people want to imagine that some people remain forever beyond the pale, and this simply serves those arguments of power that want to incarcerate or contain people—and thereby inflict fates worse than death upon them.

It points to the limits of our willingness, not necessarily our capacity, to redeem people from “madness” or “criminality”. It underscores our laziness, even if it also points to a woeful lack of resources provided to support the effort to reach those who suffer “madness” or “criminality”. And in a nation that has 2.2 million people in prison and where the construction of the “black male” as inherently criminal has wide social cache—most unfortunately amongst police in our police departments—the idea that retaliation (whether in the typical form of murder/death or in a heroic confinement to an institution) hardly amounts to a desirable social response. Swamp Thing’s “talk to them,” admittedly in a fantasy setting and done by a character very close to a deity, nonetheless provides an alternative image that seems far more worth striving for.

Black Orchid’s refusal of violence offers nothing more than a standard super-hero obligation; her substitution of retaliation does not necessarily mark any sort of humanistic or progressive advance, especially when confinement in someplace like Arkham Asylum serves as the major symbol of what “I won’t kill you” looks like and promises. Moreover, Gaiman’s subsequent demonstration of a considerable enthusiasm and knack for (sexual) psychopathology makes this supposedly progressive avoidance of violence less convincing. As Sandman and other texts make clear, he wallows adroitly in the horrific—and the “solution” promised here by Black Orchid amounts to a more horrible threat than death.

As such, it seems more that Gaiman articulates a way for super-heroes to inflict greater punishment and cruelty than simply murdering their opponents. Black Orchid herself has lived this horror herself, having suffered “death” (in quotation marks) at the outset. She ultimately arrives at a place of peace (her own Heaven), and this presents an image of hope (“where there is life, there’s hope”), yes, but not for those she inflicts retaliation upon.

Whatever complicated thematic unravelling this might lead to (in this book or in the comic genre generally), the major gesture here seems more akin to, “Silly mortal, you thought death was the worst that could happen to you?” In Sandman, Death certainly causes less agony and mayhem than Dream or Desire. Whatever shift Gaiman affects here, it seems to have far less to do with any structural change to the genre as Gilmore claims; such a remark applies more to Moore’s imaginative breakthrough in addressing rationality to plants. At most, all Gaiman has done amounts to pulling back the veil on the (im)polite fiction that permits super-heroes (and us) to pat ourselves on the back for torturing those we deem irredeemable.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., McKean, D., & Klein, T. (2012). Black Orchid. Deluxe ed. New York, N.Y: DC Comics/Vertigo., pp. 1–160.

[3] A senior writer at Rolling Stone, the introduction assures me.

Summary (TLDR Version)

“Given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible”; this series still seeks those right conditions.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: S. Oliver, R. Rodriguez, R. Renzi’s (2014)[2] FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics (vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift)

I forever feel disinclined to cite ad-text about what a book (in this case a graphic novel that collects the first seven issues of FBP) claims for its content, but it still seems a kind of place to start for approaching a book when addressing readers (you) who’ve perhaps not read the book; so:

Wormholes in your kitchen. Gravity failures at school. Quantum tornadoes tearing through the Midwest. As with all natural disasters, people do what they always do: They adapt and survive. And if things get really bad, the Federal Bureau of Physics (FBP) is only a call away. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics is the story of Adam Hardy: Young, brash and smart, he’s a rising star at the FBP, but when a gravity failure leads to the creation of an alternate dimension known as a “BubbleVerse,” Adam is sent on a rescue mission and finds his skills and abilities pushed to their limits when he discovers his partner has a different agenda… Collects issues #1-7

More succinctly: imagine Ghostbusters, but with anomalous physics (not anomalous spirits) posing the main threats faced by the Bureau.

I find three things in particular noteworthy in this series, each of which also winds up with a serious downside: an unusual characterization, the potential revolution that altering time and space portends, and a different emphasis (sometimes) within the series’ “boy fiction”.

Adam Hardy: Palestinian

To address the most straightforward of these: the authors make the central character Palestinian—a gesture potentially radical and certainly perspicacious—but they leave him named Adam Hardy (presumably Oliver’s choice), so that the specificity of his ethnicity disappears. As the creator but visual artist of the series (Rodriguez) notes, “The first big change I wanted to make in the look of the cast was Adam [the main character] and his family. Even though his last name is Hardy, he is Palestinian” (136).

It becomes difficult to “read” this from the text; he simply looks more “brown-skinned” than actually “Arab” (or Palestinian). Meanwhile, Adam’s uncle (Eli) wears a turban, and looks (stereotypically speaking) more like a Sikh than a (presumably Muslim?) Palestinian. Adam’s father, by contrast, seems in spots more to resemble Chong, and not just for participating in a marijuana deal (although obviously this helps). Adding to the confusion (and thankfully you might only notice this after finishing the book, and reading about the character design notes at its end), Rodriguez declares, “I figured an American would not progress as far in science [as a Palestinian]. I mean look at our education numbers” (ibid). One could flip out about this in various ways, but the dominating narrative about Palestinians (as Arabs generally and especially in contrast to Zionist discourse about Palestinians) would generally claim the opposite. The use of “American” here also becomes incoherent, since Adam’s birth didn’t occur outside of the United States (presumably).

The impression I get: Oliver write a narrative about a Caucasian (named Adam Hardy) and Rodriguez prevailed upon him to make a merely visual change that does not actually have an narrative significance in the story. But, just as an African-American playing Hamlet (or a Caucasian playing Othello) has no meaning or support from Shakespeare’s texts themselves, for the audience, the change becomes noticeable and might actually modify the story. Thus, Rodriguez offers the curious statement, “To save the name, which I liked, I figured in this world it’s much like Ellis Island where Adam’s family got a new name once they got off the boat” (ibid). I don’t dispute this ever happens, but if “Adam Hardy” should in some way embody “Palestinian” heritage, merely to add a brown tint to his skin and put a turban on his uncle falls short of signalling that enough, especially when changing his name would have helped immensely.

So, even though I see the change to “Palestinian” as utterly gratuitous (and, in fact, in some ways contradicts the largely standard “boy fiction” narrative that Oliver provides without, however, at all challenging that narrative), it still seems a striking gesture as an intention, albeit a failed or ineffective one.

Changing the Categories of Time and Space

Something similar happens with the deployment of the “core idea” in this series: i.e., how human beings deal with circumstances where conventional physics goes awry (i.e., local gravity reversals, the creation of parallel and temporary bubble dimensions, perhaps even reversals of time’s arrow). Those familiar with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s (1977)[3] Roadside Picnic or the (heavily narratively modified) film version, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (1979) Stalker, will well know just how strangely and richly one may play with the idea of unpredictable physics.

One pitfall of such unpredictable physics comes up when it starts to act more like magic, although maintaining the distinction may quickly become hairy, if not impossible.[4] Worse, and in contrast to the idea of unpredictable physics as magic, unpredictable physics may also come to serve as a narrative pretence. For example, at one point a colleague tries to shoot Adam and instead of traveling in the correct trajectory, the bullet squiggles around more like the one that assassinated JFK and only hits Adam in the arm. The authors seem to acknowledge the “mere convenience” of this, because Adam reflects how freak physics unpredictably killed his father and now freak physics has saved his life.

The authors avoid, for the most part, sliding toward “magic” because they keep deploying technological devices to deal with stuff. At the same time, this only more and more reinforces the echoes of Ghostbusters, but the problem of narrative convenience (and pretence) remains the more serious problem. The book repeats, more than once, that given the right conditions, the impossible becomes possible. This explicitly counters any magical or supernatural “vibe” the book has, since it specifically cites a rationalistic (or scientific) basis for whatever weirdness happens in the series, whether a quantum tornado, localized gravity fluctuations, or inexplicably zigzagging bullets.

An example from the history of literature and literary criticism points to this as well. A popular distinction in the early Gothic novel in English noted how the denouement of a work would speak volumes. In the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, for instance, no matter how many uncanny events occur, in the end—as also in Scooby Doo—an entirely rational explanation appears to account for all of the events. In other Gothic fiction, archetypally Mathew Lewis’ (1796) The Monk, the weirdness simply gets weirder at the end, so that a supernatural explanation (complete or not) thwarts any “rational” explanation. So runs the distinction, in any case. Thus, when the authors of FBP narratively insist that given the right conditions the impossible becomes possible they certainly invoke something more on the side of Radcliffe’s (and Scooby Doo’s) rationalistic explanations. The smattering of exposition about physics also tilts the story more towards “science” than “magic”.

However, this does not explain away the narrative conveniences (or pretences) resorted to. In terms of narrative world-building, this means that the authors seem to supply too little to make a moment like the zigzagging bullet consistent with the rest of the world (rather than just an unconvincing contrivance to save the hero).

I must say: the contrivance that saves the hero may denote one of the Fundamental Laws of (Action) Fiction. In a vast number of books and movies—one may see it to egregious, virtually comical extent in Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[5] Fear Agent (Volume 2)—we see again and again how the narrative bends over backward to accommodate the most unlikely advantages for the hero. Or we’ve all watched as a villain—previously the world’s deadliest sniper—become incapable of hitting the broadside of a barn once he starts shooting at the hero; the moment in Cosmatos’ (1993)[6] Tombstone when Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp becomes unhittable makes the an exception that proves the rule.

So, much as making Adam Palestinian generates little more than a cosmetic difference in the series, too much of the world of physics seems just window-dressing (a kind of skin) overlaid on top of the usual stuff. Hence, the recurring impression of Ghostbusters but with gravitational rather than spectral anomalies.

I find this especially disappointing, since the difference than physics (rather than ghosts) purports really does go to changing our fundamental experience in the world. A gravitational reverse doesn’t provide much “drama” or “story” of course—it’s rather like a summer rainstorm, more of an inconvenience, which we weather (with an umbrella or not). But even this minor change to how the world works does require changes in how we arrange the world—cars that don’t suddenly lift off of freeways, for instance. It suggests we might have to rebuild the mobile infrastructure of the world—gravitational stability fields along the highways and sidewalks, &c. Or whatever.

Modifications to—i.e., radical modifications to—our fundamental categories of time and space stand to show us, in fictions, what alternative worlds might look like. In the overwhelming majority of (positively) utopian fictions, the authors imagine how to arrange society so as to maximize whatever they imagine needs maximizing; very much less frequently do they consider the possibility not to change human society but to alter “human nature”. We could solve the problem of human starvation if we redesigned our bodies to take in energy through some means other than nutrients. Fanciful, in principle, but by rejecting the “realism” of things as they seem, we may thus come to see alternatives our categories previously blocked. So too with the premise of this book: by taking up the possibility of fundamentally modifying how time and space behave, we might come to see alternatives we otherwise cannot. But instead of this, the authors short-shrift “world-building” and wind up more often resorting to conventional narrative contrivances. No modification to the fundamental categories of time and space occur when the bullet zigzags, in other words; the authors simply have put their hero in a tight spot and found an easy (unconvincing) way out.

Not Quite Only Boy Fiction

Most of the narrative takes up whole-cloth the tropes of boy fiction: masculine activity (here a group, centring on Adam, but which includes eventually a female) to save the world, with a magical degree of competence by the male (so long as it doesn’t prevent the further development of plot problems), a typically omnipotent villain (at least in these first seven issues) presumably worthy of the hero, and so on. Again, Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014) Fear Agent (Volume 2) provides a much more grotesque, utterly unself-conscious version of this.

However, here the authors show how a disaster (engineered secretly behind the scenes by the villain) serves as the pretext for the introduction of a bill before Congress that privatizes the previously government-only Federal Bureau of Physics. Besides being a politically astute recognition—or, as Klein’s (2007)[7] Shock Doctrine makes clear, simply a correct understanding of much of what lies behind the corporatization of Congress, whether deliberately (i.e., the wilful 2008 act of financial terrorism by Wall Street and/or 911 and/or Pearl Harbor and/or Halliburton in Iraq) or merely opportunistically (various responses to Katrina)—this also de-centres the typical boy fiction narrative (hero vs. villain) and points instead to the structural features of disaster capitalism that require the sort of disaster the book depicts.[8]

The series has some other subtle gestures of this type but, just as Adam’s Palestinian origins and the environmental modifications of time and space in the story seem cosmetic only, the presence of this “structural feature” in the genre of boy fiction tends to collapse back into mere (boy) hero vs. (personal) villain.

One of the ways this happens: personal betrayal happens at the drop of a hat in this series. At one point, a late-introduced character (Agent Reyes) gets blackmailed in what contextually seems a very contrived way. Imagine if someone suddenly told a nuclear physicist, “We’ve kidnapped you because we have uranium and a nuclear reactor. Build us a bomb!”—as if one may simply acquire uranium and nuclear reactors; Agent Reyes seems confronted by this kind of implausibility. I think the authors want us to believe that these schemers will get connected to the master villain, who presumably has the financial means to acquire the analogues of “uranium” and “nuclear reactors” the narrative requires at that point. Especially since the other main betrayal, of Adam by his long-time partner, hinges entirely on that partner’s co-optation by the master villain toward engineering the disaster mentioned above. At least, that seems what the story entails.

Both of these events really come out of left field, not at all clearly motivated, and more seeming just to provide Michael Bay-like explosions in the story. But regardless, both emphasize the personal corruption of the character who have access (probably because they have wealth) to the corridors of power, and thus the means, for accomplishing their nefarious deeds. The authors depict them as people who take advantage of an innocent system, except that engineering a disaster in order to create circumstances that make citizens willing to accept unacceptable changes (again) points to structural characteristics of our social world (in the US and elsewhere).

Yes, in the several historical settings that Klein identifies as illustrative of disaster capitalism at work (Pinochet’s Chile, the Reagan era in the United States, the manipulation of circumstances post-Apartheid in South Africa and with Solidarity in Poland, the Patriot Act following 9/11, Halliburton in Baghdad, New Orleans post-Katrina, &c), we see individuals working to push terrible agendas, but the very repetition of this pattern by different people in different places points to a structural, not just a personal, aspect at play. And in Oliver, Rodriguez, and Renzi’s book, they provide us a textbook example of disaster capitalism (in this case, where someone deliberately causes the disaster).

But then the narrative loses traction and makes this into the act simply of an evil man, the villain. And we might similarly name names (certainly a plurality, not one) in Pinochet’s Chile, Reagan’s United States, Thatcher’s England, &c., but these villains play the dupe, in a sense, of what the social structural (disaster capitalism) demands of them. The Koch brothers stand as puppets as much as those whose strings they think (and in fact do) pull, victims of disaster capitalism as well, except that their own operatic self-pity and access to power gives them the means to harm multitudes from that vantage point. We see the same self-pity in US discourse, when it stands baffled before the fallen towers and can’t understand, “Why do they hate us?”

Summary

I would like to imagine that somehow the modifications offered to characterization, world-building, and generic aspects of “boy fiction” would better stand up against the “gravity” of the standard discourse these narrative elements (seem, at least, to) oppose. Having recently read Yanow’s (2014)[9] War of Streets and Houses, which may function less as a narrative intended for the “general public” and more as a “secret message” to those in the know, I could tempt myself into believing that a similar “secret message” prevails here, but I can’t convince myself. In some key ways, Yanow’s text provides reasons to suspect and support such an idea—not so much here.

This seems doubly unfortunate, if only because it more clearly signals the opportunity missed than something like the massive piece of dreck like Fear Agent does. Very often, things that seem just slightly wrong can seem more significantly disastrous than something utterly wrong, but in this case I find myself much less irked (by the missed opportunity) than by something like Fear Agent, if only because the latter smugly and ignorantly goes flying by what opportunity it misses without even slightly acknowledging the mistake.

It seems tempting to impute “two minds” on the creative team, i.e., that Oliver (as the principle narrator) has one story to tell and Rodriguez (as the principle illustrator) has sought to slip a different story in, by making Adam Palestinian. But (unless we assume some outside influence on Oliver) the premise of modified time and space and the presence of disaster capitalism in the text originate (more or less) with him.

In the end, boy fiction ,narrative contrivance, and “human” (i.e., White) characterization trump the counter-gestures. Perhaps someone would say to expect otherwise makes me naïve, but let us not forget what the series insists: given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Oliver, S., Rodriguez, R., & Renzi, R. (2014). FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics. New York: DC Comics/Vertigo, pp. 1–144.

[3] Strugat͡skiĭ, A., Strugat͡skiĭ, B., & Strugat͡skiĭ, A. (1977). Roadside picnic ; Tale of the troika. New York: Macmillan.

[4] Of course, one might cite Clarke here, that “any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic,” but Clarke has it backwards; we should say, rather, “any magic, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.” If I went back in time to a medieval era with some widget, they might well call it “magic”. But if someone from our future showed up using magic, we would assume some sort of technological explanation must exist. We would fail to recognize their magic as magic—magic being that which operates contrary to the known principles of science. Thus, in the same way, we see that the medievalists make no error to call my “technology” “magic”—because my technological widget does indeed operate contrary to the known principles of explanation available to them at the time. Except that they have the category of “magic” (again, as simply “that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world”), while we don’t. If I get to go back to the eleventh century and insist to the “natives” that they shouldn’t call my widget “magic”, then I have no grounds for insisting to future travellers to my own time that I get to call their widget “technology” (even though it contradicts fundamental aspects of what I understand as science). Consequently, just as naturalistic fiction actually represents a sub-genre of science fiction (i.e., a parallel universe story in which the only difference from our own world centers on the characters of the novel), so we may see that technology represents a sub-genre of magic (magic, again, consisting of that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world).

[5] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.

[6] Russell, K., Kilmer, V., Biehn, M., Boothe, P., Burke, R. J., Delany, D., . . . Pacula, J. (1997). Tombstone: Hollywood Pictures Home Video

[7] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism: Macmillan

[8] Engels also said, a long time ago: the middle class has never produced anything except periodic financial collapses (whether on purpose, i.e., Goldman-Sachs & cronies, accidentally, or opportunistically, i.e., every robber baron ever).

[9] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

Summary (TLDR Version)

A book that doesn’t over-reach at all, for once.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Seo Kim’s (2014)[2] Cat Person

No shortage of books about cats and cat people exists, but this book still succeeds in hitting on some laugh-out-loud cat owner moments. A bit unhappily, the cat part of the book gives way to autobiographic details from daily life, which resonate less frequently but still capture at times the texture of everyday life very nicely: making a cup of tea, for instance, being distracted by the Internet and everything else sufficiently that you then have to microwave the tea to warm it up again. Sometimes, a glimmer of usefulness peeks through even.

It’s normal to have feelings, even negative ones. And it doesn’t help to get mad at yourself for having them. You can, however, get made at your feelings, since your feelings don’t have feelings. Fuck you! You’re the worst. And why do you exist?

As a very narrow kind of slice-of-life book, it in no ways falls over itself with unbearable pretentions or stupidities. It makes no grand claims and happily rests, utterly awash, in the quotidian (the stuff of daily life). If it lacks “political significance,” it also at least doesn’t claim any, which one can’t say of a great number of cultural products making claims to “no politics” or “nothing”.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Kim, S. (2014). Cat person, Koyama Press, pp. 1–144.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Sophie Yanow’s (2014)[2] War of Streets and Houses

The back of the book claims:

An American artist witnesses the Quebec spring 2012 student strike on the streets of Montreal. The brutal police response and their violent tactics trigger and exploration of urban planning and its hidden connections to military strategies. Marshal Bugeaud’s urban warfare tactic s in Algeria, Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planning and repression in the New World; theory and personal experience collide into an ambitious and poetic cartoon memoir.

The book fails to deliver on this, but back-of-book ad-text rarely accurately describes what one has picked up to read. All of the topics mentioned to some extent do appear in the book in what seems (or may actually fall out as) a disjointed, incoherent heap. And as others have observed elsewhere (in different contexts), to put grapes and a cookie next to one another does not invoke (or necessarily even allude to) the Christian last supper, &c. On artistic grounds, one may object that mere parataxis (juxtaposition) doesn’t suffice, but on more general grounds, for anyone even to have the possibility of reading (or misreading or overreading such a juxtaposition) presupposes someone acculturated to that discourse.

And one may certainly read Yanow’s book in such a way; I mean, it has structural features that support and back up such a reading.

Reading the book may very well feel like reading an insider text as an outsider. One finds nothing like Joe Sacco’s painstaking effort to give a sufficient enough framing to understand the nuances of the places he writes about. Here, it seems more as if you must already know the history of the student strike to understand the book. Narratively, it leaps around with very little narrative connective tissue, and what most justifies such a reading comes from Yanow’s art style, which similarly leaves more than usual to the imagination. One might call this minimalism, except that if minimalism aspires to to present the most essential element, Yanow has elected more to exclude key details. How, for instance, does one connect the story from frame to frame; the answer seems that “you already know the story behind the scenes”.

Just for example, at one point the police technique of kettling occurs (in the story) and gets accompanied by an explanatory definition by Yanow. But she does not supply how a resistor deals with, addresses, prepares for, or overcomes kettling. One might call this a lapse—shouldn’t books educate—but to explain the counter-tactic for kettling would make it available for the security forces deploying kettling. She does, for instance, mention that people remove their batteries from cell-phones—something the security forces will obviously learn for themselves (assuming they don’t already know), and which in any case cannot get counteracted simply because the security forces know.

So the book may function as an open, esoteric knowledge—a signal across time and space to those who already know the story and can read between the (scribbled) lines to pick up what they need to know. Some might object that this “locks out” those who might become allies. It seems enough to let people know, “Hey, these things happen. When you see them, you can—like we once did—join in. You learn what and when to do that way, not by ‘browsing’ the history of an action through empty entertainment in a book.”

Such “circumspection” of course serves a protective function as well. For movements subject to police repression, in an era where the media serves as a powerful wing of that oppression, how do you “get the message out” without compromising yourself or making yourself vulnerable? Yanow’s book may accomplish this, and the fact that it fails to satisfying on the level of (coherent) story or (aesthetic) art itself serves to protect against getting taken up by or co-opted by mere lookie-loos on the one hand or nosey security forces on the other.

In any case, one must assume that the panopticon has taken note, so that we may wonder what disinformation (of necessity) it reflects, in order to throw the blood-hounds onto the wrong trails. Once again, what direct actions finally need doesn’t amount to historical publicity after the fact (or accidental disclosures to the security forces along the way) but to inspire resistance. We see at this very moment the resistance in Hong Kong, with barriers and umbrellas and mace and masses, and if you have read Yanow’s (admittedly in ways vague) book, you know unequivocally what you need to do: show up.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

Summary (TLDR Version)

When we hear that systemic racism, mass incarceration, global climate change, and the like “are” enormous problems and will take massive, system-wide intervention to address, for the lone individual this may often make him or her feel, “There’s nothing I can do.” And yet, to deny the possibility of doing anything provides exactly the precondition to allow these unacceptable human injustices to continue. As such, we see that “There’s nothing I can do” first and foremost serves the goal of white privilege and global capitalization, because the claim disempowers even the will to believe that we might take action to change things. We should not let ourselves get manipulated by this discourse in this way.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Squarzoni, Whittington-Evans, & Hahnenberger’s (2014)[2] Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

A rough summary (from elsewhere) just to orient you to the book.

What are the causes and consequences of climate change? When the scale is so big, can an individual make any difference? Documentary, diary, and masterwork graphic novel, this up-to-date look at our planet and how we live on it explains what global warming is all about. With the most complicated concepts made clear in a feat of investigative journalism by artist Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed weaves together scientific research, extensive interviews with experts, and a call for action. Weighing the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others, this ground-breaking work provides a realistic, balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis that An Inconvenient Truth only touched on. Climate Changed is printed on FSC-certified paper from responsibly-managed, environmentally-sound sources.

This book covers a lot and Squarzoni and crew have crammed it full of information, in particular (1) breaking down the different kinds of greenhouse gasses and their relative contributions to warming, (2) discussing in a lot of detail the possible extent of average temperature rise over the planet in the upcoming century, and (3) the projected consequences of those rises in temperature.

As far as the first goes, it needs repeating that 97% of climate scientists concur that global warming has a human source. You might also know that only 41% of people in the U.S. “believe” global warming. A point needs making here. First, I don’t think even ONE qualified scientist exists who denies the on-going increase of planetary temperatures, so when we hear that 97% of climate scientists concur, they concur on the anthropogenic (human-caused) source of the current warming trends. Certainly, a good portion of the 59% who “don’t believe in global warming,” many (no doubt) think that scientists question the global rise of temperatures. No qualified scientist could possibly assert that.

To jump ahead briefly—or, rather, simply to skip any summary of the projected ranges of average temperature rise over the next century for now—one of the most significant climate justice points raised in the book centres on the 250 million people liable to displacement (from coastal cities) if this human-caused global warming continues. (Sixteen of the world’s twenty largest metropolises stand within the zone affected by the sea level rise associated with global warming.)

But who will give a shit (outside of those people who have their lives destroyed by industrial-world overconsumption)? In a recent article, Kilgore draws this point when stressing the links between climate justice and anti-mass incarceration work:

The vagaries of global climate change have hit the poor, especially from the global South. Spokespeople from African countries such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of over a thousand civil society organizations, are stepping up. Post-Haiyan, nurses unions from the Philippines are joining the fray. Women have also raised the gender dimensions of global climate justice. In its call on members to join the September 21 climate march in Manhattan, the International Alliance of Women stressed, “there can be no climate justice without gender justice.” They pointed out the importance of “acknowledging that women, particularly in the global South, have contributed the least to global warming and degradation of the planet and yet they suffer the most from environmental destruction and unsustainable consumption and production” (¶11, emphasis added).

One cannot seriously dispute this—not, at least, in terms of what climate science has established so far—but Squarzoni and crew also point out (offering a sort of climate version of “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”) how the temperate zone of the world (which includes the U.S. for now) may actually benefit from global warming, even as things gets even more unbearable elsewhere (i.e., particularly in Africa). I should probably repeat that: climate change may actually benefit (many parts of) the global North, while fucking over even harder (many places in) the global South. Taking this into account, that 59% don’t see global warming (much less see it as a problem) becomes that much more ominous for any sense of global justice.

The narrative woven through the book tracks Squarzoni’s personal struggle with the issue. At one point, he denies himself a trip to Laos (for a conference) that he really wanted to attend. But two years later, he makes excuses to himself and tries to mitigate the effects of his flying about. He gives voice to the notion that, unless everyone else in society also goes along with an individual who tries to make a personal change, then the gestures of personal change have no effect.

I have a further point to make about this, but I need to insert a point here. The notion that personal change has no effect doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. One cannot deny, if I personally make some anti-racist gesture over the course of my day, then systemic racism remains unchallenged at its structural levels. But modelling a change of behaviour to others does (or can) have an effect. It becomes very hard to believe that “it doesn’t make a difference” serves only as a polite fiction for quietism in the face of 250 million people being displaced from their homes around the world. To say “there’s nothing I can do” doesn’t serve any end of social justice, and it rests on a childishly adolescent notion (so it has a certain ring of nobility) that change ever happens “magically”. Just as buying a lottery ticket will make me rich, so I can fantasize that if I just throw this aluminium can in the recycle bin, then no one will drown in India. This foolish, almost petulant, notion of change throws out the baby with the bathwater; no one will believe change can happen if no one models belief in that change. So the observation that we must work for top-down structural change (while certainly true) does not mean, in the meantime, that personal action “makes no difference”. Why will anyone in the industrial world act toward such top-down change if “nothing I do matters”? Behind which lurks the fact that the global North believes (i.e., tells itself, as Squarzoni repeats and climate scientists assert) it will benefit (possibly!) from global warming. I want to repeat that: climate scientists assert, at least as part of their analysis of the situation, that the global North may benefit (possibly!) from global warming.

Thus, over the course of Squarzoni’s narrative, he depicts his struggle at trying to act like a good citizen of the world. But he still shows himself going back on his earlier commitment (not to fly in planes). And he specifically arrives at a point where his mate asks if he plans to end the book on a bummer-point he arrives at. He says he doesn’t, but the last frames show us his wife and him sitting in silence at their computers. He doesn’t refute the point; he doesn’t suggest either of them do anything vis-à-vis climate change, &c. And why should they? They live in a place liable to benefit from global climate change—even though something like 19,000 French people died in record-breaking summer temperatures.

In Kilgore’s article, he notes of both anti-mass incarceration and climate justice work: “The problems we face are systemic. They are not about changing a few laws or regulating a few bad apple corporations, be they oil companies or private corrections firms. The system has to change from top to bottom” (¶8). Michelle Alexander makes a similar point in her (2010)[3] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; we must affect a total overhaul of the “system” from the top down. Klein (2011)[4] stresses this as well with respect to climate justice. However accurate, these calls for massive change will serve only as pious declarations if people not only fail to recognize their stake in the matter and generate the necessary political resistance to force such top-down change but also give up (or see in a new way) their self-interest that wants to let the present circumstance continue.

Simon (2014)[5] documents the legal vicissitudes that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the overcrowding in California’s prisons an Eighth Amendment violation, and particularly as against human dignity. By this stroke, California did, in fact, finally start to address mass incarceration, which Simon calls the worst domestic human rights violation in the United States since slavery. This represents a moment of “top-down” change; it represents leadership “from above”. IT demonstrates that, albeit slowly and with a lot of work, it remains possible to have the voice of the voiceless (human beings in prison) get heard by the highest court in the land, and prevail.

Certainly, these calls for massive top-down change, whatever they accomplish, will ultimately confront the 250 million (and more) being drowned around the world. Let Africa plummet into a fatal drought, and we may see mass migrations into Europe, just as those fucked over in the South Western hemisphere may have to head for higher ground. Along with a beady-eyed faith in technology to save us (by “us” I mean those in the global North; those in the global South will not generally have the financial resources to extricate themselves technologically) from our own anthropogenic global warming, the changes in climate will have unpredictable effects in our region. The current Ebola crisis in the US may come home to roost. Mosquito-borne illness may become far more prevalent as the swampier environment gives them and other disease vectors more energy to spread.

Kilgore, Klein, and Alexander (not to pick on them, but simply to keep citing them) all acknowledge that piece-meal attempts to address the justice issues they focus on only defer the problem, but we should never call such “Band-Aid” solutions pointless when they address real, human suffering right now. I don’t suggest—and they don’t propose—that this amounts to either/or, but we cannot proceed to carefully by making sure no one takes a call for systemic intervention as a call to sit down and “debate” the solution. Particularly for climate change, each moment of delay actively and further sets the stage for the unnecessary murder of people (through negligence).

Just as those privileged in the United States seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from that (patriarchal) privilege, such that its banes go on fucking up their lives, similarly those in the global North seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from climate injustice, such that the degradation of the ecology of their own lives goes on unchecked. People in the United States rank 105th in the world for happiness, and yet we go on imagining that things as they stand should not change in any significant way. Inasmuch as we participate daily in the humiliation of non-white people domestically, inasmuch as we realize (however dimly) that the human rights violations inflicted on others may come home to roost in our own lives at any moment, inasmuch as we recognize (however dimly) our complicity in the further destruction of Africa and the threatened annihilation of 250 million lives (or more) around the world, how can we possibly feel “happy” in that context. And facing these facts, however dimly, how can we feel happy when we get told (or realise, however dimly) “nothing I can do will make a difference.”

Squarzoni’s depiction of this hopelessness, while narratively “realistic” gets undermined by the fact of his book. I would read it as his attempt to embody a particular, familiar sentiment expressed by many people in the Occidental world, but a more cogent narrative would have given more than just his point of view. I don’t think he intends this, but both the support of his wife and how he frames the discourse (about climate change) presented by the climate scientists and economists all serve to support his quietism and the hopelessness embodied in the last frames that show his wife and him sitting uselessly at their (electricity-consuming) computers.

By contrast, I have faith that the rest of the world, suffering under the heel of sand-faced ostriches in the Occidental world, will organise (if only because they have no choice) in the face of this irresponsibly and inhuman applied suffering, and do something about it. Already, vast portions of the world reject the developmentalist framework that the Occidental world keeps pushing, even as the ethical and consequential effects of it get more and more amply documented.

I think of that moment in Schumacher’s (1993)[6] reactionary Falling Down, when the main character finally asks, “Am I the bad guy? When did I become the bad guy?”[7]

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Squarzoni, P., Whittington-Evans, N., & Hahnenberger, I. (2014). Climate changed: a personal journey through the science. New York: Abrams ComicArts, pp. i–vii, 1–480.

[3] Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[4] Klein, N. (2011). Capitalism vs. the Climate. The Nation, 28, 11-21

[5] Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press

[6] Schumacher, J., Kopelson, A., Weingrod, H., Harris, T., Smith, E. R., Douglas, M., . . . Forrest, F. (1999). Falling down: Warner Home Video

[7] See also Davies, J. (1995). ’I’m the bad guy?’Falling down and white masculinity in 1990s Hollywood. Journal of Gender Studies, 4(2), 145–152.

Summary (in One Sentence)

Some reply and elaborate new alternatives; some respond and choose between existing alternatives; some react and deny some of the existing alternatives.

Pre-Disclaimer

Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

Another Reaction To: Nussbaum and Cohen’s (2002)[1] For Love of Country?

NOTE: it appears I forget to post this last year; better late than pregnant, as they say.

This book consists of numerous essays responding to a piece by Nussbaum that appeared in the October/November 1994 edition of The Boston Review, which at the time also included 29 replies; in this edition, compiled after 9/11, eleven original responses re included plus five new ones, along with a concluding reply by Nussbaum. Since this is 18 essays in all, I may react more than once to this book. This is the fourth.

As a first note, an observation by twelfth-century monk Hugh of St. Victor bears on the present set of essays:

The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect (qtd. In Todorov, 1984,[2] p. 250).[3]

One of the things to emerge over the course of riding several responses to Nussbaum (2002), and Pinsky’s (2002)[4] piece, exemplifies this, involves the tautology, for example, that patriotism and cosmopolitanism “are not mere ideas, but are feelings, indeed they are forms of love” (85). The false opposition between mere ideas and affects, actually forms of love, makes good on Pinsky’s expressed worry later that he risks an “accusation of sentimentality” (90). Absolutely right, for in his fantasy about Brooklyn, a Brooklyn he admits he never lived in, a Brooklyn that existed if at all only in his imagination as a child, and which looking back he can now admit “was far uglier than [he] supposed in [his] afición for the Dodgers” (90) of that era, he admits that his form of love—call it cosmopolitanism, as he does, or patriotism—has no grounding on anything real.

Immediately, one my say the man who feels he needs to rape a woman or put a genocide in motion gets contextualized by Pinsky’s excuse for this: that eros sometimes takes terrible forms—on grounds just not only just as neurotic and irrational but just as selfish (and that matters more than the neurosis and irrationality) Pinsky expresses a willingness to tolerate rape and genocide, so to speak, just so he can keep his false nostalgia for a time that never existed; “nevertheless, the Brooklyn of the Dodgers is a cultural reality shared by many, and I am proud to be among them” (90).

What remains so irking in Pinsky’s idealization of affect, which borders on the narcissistic in the way he formulates it and which he signals ideologically in the phrase “mere idea,” arises in the notion that these affective experience somehow involved no learning, as if Pinsky (or anyone) would have, does have, these sorts of “feelings” regardless of who or where they live. Notwithstanding that not everyone feels rooted to the place of their birth or the place of their growing up—much less has an illusory nostalgia about that period—not everyone orients to their experience through affect either. One might, in fact, discern in the patriotism versus cosmopolitan debate a Jungian-type distinction between thinking-oriented people and feeling-oriented people. Pinsky’s article, which juxtaposes and privileges one of the most intellectually rarefied notions of affect (eros) next to one of the most affectively driven efforts to create a pure abstraction of language (Esperanto), signals where he comes down on the matter just as surely as the lamentations and garment-ripping opens with make it seem as if Nussbaum has stolen his sweet roll with her essay.

It might seem unjust or unfair or even slightly cruel to react this way; after all, Pinsky fires up a gigantic emotional appeal (more than an argument) so that rejecting it has that quality of pathos that Frye (1957) imputes to the (often female, often rejected) supplicant, who must beg the King for some kind of mercy. But this apparent trap implicates the crux of Pinsky’s argument—must one accede to an appeal, merely because it comes with a big wash of feeling? Once again, the rapist and would-be genocidalist doubtless wants vastly what he wants as well, and so what? Children regularly get their wants crushed, and on far more arbitrary grounds—on that point, one may find no accident that Pinsky’s argument circles around to childhood nostalgia at root; the same root that these kinds of affect-driven appeals to patriotism tend to devolve.

If we can locate the “justification” for crushing children’s desires—children’s’ eros—then it comes at the juncture where whatever the adult must accomplish, whether keeping a roof over everyone’s head, providing food, clothing, whatnot, then this happens in such a way that the child can provide essentially nothing toward that end. I want a toy robot, but my mother has rent to pay—with some creativity, and given a luxury of time, a parent might find a way to meet the wanting of the child without assenting to the specific (expensive) demand. &c. Fill in all the other variegated details of child-rearing as you like. In the present case, in the human task of taking care of the world, his desire for the toy robot of nostalgia may (I say does) warrant crushing, especially as his affect-driven “tear-jerker” involves emotional hostage-taking. It frames an issue in an either/or—or simply picks up Nussbaum’s either/or, though he immediately changes the terms of her argument to suit his—and then comes down in what amounts to a “take it or leave it” appeal.

Nussbaum’s’ augment has two central elements: a rejection of patriotism (this points to the negative part) and a promotion of cosmopolitanism (described positively). Pinsky, like others, uses the latter to browbeat the former, precisely in the kind of way that Nussbaum flags as problematic. Pinsky gets rubbed raw by lectures on jingoism and hurls the epithet provincial liberally at Nussbaum, while getting jingoistic and provincial himself, even adamantly and proudly so; “Call it patriotism” (90). He offers little, if any, rapprochement between Others in culture, dismissing the passion of Nussbaum’s piece as bloodless and abstract, and this while lecturing her for not taking Marcus Aurelius’ advice to listen to others closely seriously enough.

All argumentation remains affect-driven to some degree, but it may shade as well over into affect-blinded. Such affect-blindness, what might be a case of ego-inflation in Jung’s terms, makes for a central concern in Nussbaum’s essay, and in her reply to these essays Nussbaum (2002)[5] specifically says,

We have many ways of avoiding the claim of common humanity. One way, I think, is to say that the universal is boring and could not be expected to claim our love. I am astonished that so many distinguished writers should make this suggestion, connecting the idea of work citizenship with a “black-and-white” world, a world lacking in poetry (139).

Pinsky exemplifies the aptness of this concern, but most of all in his refusal to consider the Other—the one who does not comprise an inhabitant of whatever (imaginary) zone of patriotism the patriot occupies. For all of his professions of admiration for Nussbaum at the beginning of his essay, that she has come out and said these things makes Pinsky wail and, ultimately, he draws a line in the sand: since she shows herself not with him, she proves herself against him.

Putnam (2002),[6] despite being an arch-philosopher, veers into affective terrain as well. In illustrating answers to the question why is discrimination wrong, replies like we are created in the image of go or because we are both fellow passengers to the grave appeal to him in a way that because we are citizens of the world does not. He suggests this test yields the results it does because the history of explanations (religious or social) provide hooks; in other words, he has a history of acculturation to these traditions and thus finds himself reacting according to them, whereas the political appeal of we are citizens of the world has no traction because there exists no tradition (however much Nussbaum sketches it out for us). So Putnam (affectively) responds to what he has been trained to respond to—que mirabilis! Putnam, rather superciliously notes:

It may be that “citizen of the world” will one day have that kind of moral weight and that Martha Nussbaum will have been the prophet of a new moral vision. But it doesn’t today (96).

At one point, Putnam expresses astonishment that Nussbaum has invoked universal reason as she has in her essay. [7] For a philosopher of Putnam’s rank to declare that Nussbaum’s argument lacks merit because it lacks public support seems equally as striking. Having allowed himself this lapse, he then tries to explain it away, and does so with a (possibly useful) bait-and-switch substitution of “critical intelligence and loyalty to what is best in our traditions”(97) for cosmopolitanism and patriotism, respectively. He says this because, without something like a tradition we would have nothing to work on to sort what to keep from what we find worth keeping, a process we must accomplish necessarily as situated individuals, not as empty (universal) reasoning engines, which sound reasonable enough. Presumably, Putnam acknowledges, though without actually saying so, that whatever critical intelligence we might bring to the project of discerning in tradition what we want to keep and what we want to abandon occurs in a situated way itself. In his example, he says, “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust, as contrary to the most elementary principles of morality, and simply as contrary to ‘our’ values, in the style of Richard Rorty” (96). Presumably this expresses Putnam’s situation, and robber-barons might share that situation, even as they merrily (or guiltily) go on perpetuating and imposing poverty on most of the people in the world.

Putnam’s language here rings unpleasantly. He “believes that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust”; such condemnation may provide a necessary but not yet sufficient condition, while couching this all in “I believe” validates on similar grounds (or invalidates Putnam’s point as a belief) the belief that we need not condemn such poverty. Moreover, I might condemn such imposed poverty and continue imposing it, considering myself a sinner, rather than a hypocrite (who attempts to ascribe the evil of such imposition of poverty as actually a good).

Besides these inadvertent ironies of Putnam’s argument for example, which seem more rooted in his lack of real commitment to the tenor of the example chosen, the larger point points to a whole unacknowledged aspect of Putnam’s argument: how does the inquiry (using critical intelligence for the sake of our best traditions) get conducted. If my immediate point above involves who gets to participate, and all of the socioeconomic problems that points to, then once we even manage to get a genuinely representative sample of people to the discussion table, how will the dialogue of critical intelligence occur, in what mode of discussion?

Obviously, the participants will consist of situated individuals—saying this amounts to saying nothing. In fact, what matters in that room concerns not individuals at all but the (status of the) we composed or comprised of them. What does it matter if a King and a Pauper face one another across the table if they encounter one another as human beings—whether because Putnam finds his affect-gland tweaked by “we’re all in the image of god” or “we’re all fellow passengers to the grave” or doesn’t in “we’re citizens of the world”. At that moment at that table, precisely our situated responses as individuals become means not ends to the continuation of a dialogue. Normally they might serve as means, when we do not (in some way) have an Other to account for in our action;[8] in the kind of situation described here, we may recognize the inheritance of a long-standing tradition (to use Putnam’s wording rather than Nussbaum’s “universal value” or “universal reason”) that humans value recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness in our conduct with one another. Obviously, at any moment the King might “pull rank” (on defensible grounds or not), but that will no less present a violation of the long-standing traditions of recognition, compassion, fairness, and cooperation.[9]

Insofar as Pinsky and Putnam (seem to) construe Nussbaum’s article as an “attack,” one may read Pinsky’s affect-blinded response both as a reaction to (a perceived) lack of compassion on Nussbaum’s part or as a denial of compassion for Nussbaum’s position. One might say this involves a non-recognition as well, insofar as Pinsky dismisses her position as a mere idea, an abstraction, and bloodless. All of what I’ve called conduct virtues (recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness) necessarily hinge on and involve the Other, so a “violation” of any virtue will affect the totality of the Other. According to our own situatedness, i.e., our own orientation to whatever constitutes the preeminent virtue in our constellations of values, we will then read out violations. One may say that Pinsky treats Nussbaum unfairly, for instance, perhaps due to a lack of compassion on his part for her position or out of a (deliberate) refusal to recognize her position, &c. These details, in the abstract, bear no further than on an (my) analysis of the conduct of the static and paper-based exchange recorded in Nussbaum’s collection of pieces. What matters does not hinge on whether I have got it right or whether Pinsky’s or Putnam’s motivations lie elsewhere; the point hinges on my desire to illustrate how the dialogue gets conducted. Nor does this ignore that Nussbaum herself throws down gauntlets—a dog barks, another dog barks back, and astonishment on the part of the first event must seem disingenuous at best.[10] Still, one may discern in the range of responses a range “from” mutual monologue toward dialogue,[11] and the more the exchange moves toward monologue—for example, from the we of a reply such as Butler (2002)[12] or Falk (2002)[13] or Scarry (2002)[14] offer, to the I of a response such as Glazer (2002)[15] or Pinsky (2002) throw out, to the sort of basically instinctual reaction that Gutman (2002)[16] and Himmelfarb (2002)[17] display—the the more and more we see a violation of the long-standing human traditions of recognition, compassion, fairness, and cooperation in various forms. To frame this notion of the distinctions between reply, respond, and react, some cybernetics:

For the living system of human beings, first-order regulators govern cognitive processes, homeostatically maintaining the stability of the unities’ organic states by a reactive process of feedback. Second-order regulators govern self-aware processes, heuristically maintaining the viability of the unity’s organization by a selective process of reacting or responding. And third-order regulators govern meaningful processes, axigenically* maintaining the being of the unity’s identity by a dialogic process of replying, responding, or reacting.

*by “axigenic” I mean value-generating or value-creating.

Taking an event to mean an occurrence that affects a human being as a living system, then human beings may be described as open to the energy but closed to the information and control[18] of a given event (Ashby, 1956). On this view, I use perturbation to connote the energetic aspect of the event, stimulus to connote the control aspect of the event, and message to connote the information aspect of the event. Furthermore, I suggest an event may be described as question that prompts one of three general forms of answer: a reaction connotes a mechanical answer with only a single alternative, a response connotes a dialectical answer selected from among a range of alternative answers available to the living system, and a reply indicates a dialogical answer constructed as a new alternative from the range of alternative answers available to the living system. While perturbations are always answered reactively, stimuli may be answered reactively or responsively, and message may be answered with reactions, responses, or replies.

Orders of regulation (as feedback, heuresis, and axigenesis) absorb input variety toward maintaining a living system’s continued existence (vis-à-vis stability, viability, and being). Feedback, as first-order regulation, reacts in the only way it knows how to the current range of a system variable toward maintaining a stability. Heuresis selects in the only way it knows how from the current range of alternatives available toward maintaining viability. Axigenesis dialogizes in the only way it knows how the range of range of alternatives effectible toward maintaining being.

Scarry (2002) immediately gets at some of this; “the way we act toward ‘others’ is shaped by the way we imagine them” (98), even if the weight of her article considers modifications to the law as providing a ‘role model” so to speak for modification of behavior in the non-legal sphere.[19] Although Scarry’s wording may seem a bit overstated, it bears repeating:

The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring. The action of injuring occurs precisely because we have trouble believing in the reality of other persons. At the same time, the injury itself makes visible the fact that we cannot see the reality of other persons. It displays our perceptual disability. For if other persons stood clearly visible to us, the infliction of that injury would be impossible (102).[20]

Her major point, of several fine ones she makes, concerns that “the work accomplished by a structure of laws cannot be accomplished by a structure of sentiment” (110); or, even more succinctly, constitutions are needed to uphold cosmopolitan values” (110).

Nussbaum (2002) permits herself a reply to these and her other respondents, some of which I have not taken note of specifically.[21] One of the recurrent criticized elements of Nussbaum’s essay involves the metaphor of concentric circles—what Walzer tags as the “spheres of affection”. Nussbaum blasts past this criticism by beginning her reply with an image from the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where one my see the trees planted to honor non-Jews who saved Jews. Each of those trees proposes a moment when the supposedly absolute or “natural” or inevitable spheres of affection were bypassed, to a moment when a human being reached out past all other “local affiliations” to save a stranger. Against this view, Nussbaum opposes how “we have so many devious ways of refusing the claim of humanity” (132), and that her call for cosmopolitanism represents a resistance to such devious ways. She insists that “we are all born naked and poor; we are all subject to disease and misery of all kinds; finally, we are all condemned to death” (132), and in these inevitable essentials we may find that moral allegiance to any person.

Fine, but the platitude of this bears closer analysis. Born naked, yes, but poor: no. In the spirit of Nussbaum’s remark, this disregard for the accident of fortune involved in birth proposes that kings and paupers might find their common cause, but this blows past Wallerstein’s (2002)[22] points not simply that we find ourselves born into a radically unequal world but also that the ‘stance of ‘citizen of the world’ … can be used just as easily to sustain privilege as to undermine it” (124). Nussbaum’s invocation of naked and poor here almost reads like her spitting in Wallerstein’s eye.[23] Consequent to this inequality, the disease and misery we find ourselves exposed to substantially differs so that the usual (wise) caution against trying to compare sufferings suddenly becomes instead a way to neutralize criticisms of the structural causes of various sufferings, i.e., yes, I suffer disease and so to you (our common humanity), but my cancer originates from bad luck or an unhealthy lifestyle, for example, while yours originates with a globalized industry dumping carcinogenic toxins into your water supply ( difference in material human conditions that matters significantly).

As a human being, I want also to object to “condemned to death”. As regards anything inevitable, then we become freed, at least in principle, to decide how she shall feel or think about that inevitably. Regions provide various alternatives to “condemned,” but I want to emphasize Jung’s rather existential notion that death represents a goal one achieves, not an event that happens to a person. If Nussbaum wants to feel condemned about death, then (to paraphrase Mustapha Mond in Huxley’s Brave New World), she’s welcome, but this provides no grounds for insisting that death condemns all people. In this sense, that we all die has no significance, how we reply to that inevitability, both as the one dying and as the community or world or family where the dying occurs, has significance.

Related to this “obvious” assumption (that we all die), Nussbaum equally takes a misstep when—still trying to sketch in the human baseline where she can ground her main argument—she says, “we are all born into family of some sort” (135); the adopted, and especially the transracially adopted, know otherwise. Nussbaum might say her point does not change inasmuch as the adopted wind up in some kind of family ultimately, even if only an orphanage or foster care or the family of homeless street kids, but two things need adding to this if her point can stick. First, that she insists that the variation between, say, the average life expectancy for people in Sweden and Sierra Leone “is not just, and we had better think about it. Not just think, do” (135), then clearly the we would need also to consider how those who do not get born into a family, as Nussbaum generalizes, also “is not just, and we had better think about it. Not just think, do.” Second, the presumption that one may assert an equation of human birth and family as a human baseline must at minimum to expand to recognize the experience of those (adopted, orphaned, fostered, abandoned) who do not begin their affections or loyalties or experiences in the “circle” of family; the nation-state may set “up the basic terms for most of our daily conduct” (135) but not because “we are all born into a family of some sort” (135). Not only then may the metaphor of “family” show itself as ideological an inadequate as an organizing concept for “nation-stet” (however much those born to families extrapolate it as valid). We also see that something other than “family” itself prevails as the organization for the social order generally, because not all “are born into a family of some sort” (135).

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing to condemn the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[24] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

I should add all manner of qualifiers acknowledging Nussbaum’s (poorly executed or offered) attempt at humor, but this moment in her reply functions much like the garish and ill-advised illustration of fucking in the street in her opening essay. Let her call me a humorless prig, her patriotic joke and its smarmy attempt to disregard the very source of her arguments precisely where they most apply, precisely in the face of an explicit point to the contrary, believes exactly the kind of licensure of privilege Wallerstein (2002), with an equal lack of humor and with just cause, warns against.

In imagining the imaginative displacements that occur in art, the way that “fictive places … indicate a … desire to lure the imagination away from its most complacent moorings in the local” (140), Nussbaum ascribes a significant capacity to art precisely to tap into something like human universals to reach some of the highest moments of human realization, what Putnam called critical intelligence. But in the process, she pretends that this proposes a representation and, moreover, an often highly problematic representation of the Other, whether written by an Other or not, i.e., as outsiders: “people who, by virtue of their outsider status, can tell truths about the political community, its justice an injustice, its embracing and its failures to embrace” (140).[25]

Further on this point, it matters that Nussbaum begins this section of her reply by correctly flagging the affective bias of several of her critics and ends by an appeal to the affective power of art (to represent) universal human truths as exemplary cases of cosmopolitanism; hence, “Dante was a poet of his time … but if he were only a poet of his time, … Pinsky would not be producing his magnificent poem translating him, nor would any of us care to read his works” (141). She imputes a cosmopolitanism to Pinsky, one of her most emotionally shrill critics, precisely in his commitment to the value of (again) translating Dante’s poetry into English, but this obviously and at best ignores how such an avowed commitment to universal or cosmopolitan ideals adds substance to, or simply serves as a plausible smoke-screen, for the need for Pinsky to feed himself and his family and for late-order capitalism to continuously provide old commodities in new packages similarly to stay alive and in business. Because in general, no one (not even Italians) especially care to read Dante’s work, and those who do predominantly do so because someone like a Pinsky or publisher insist, with Wikipedia, that “his Divine Comedy, originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature” (from here)[26]—what sluggards and dough-brains we may deem the Italians for not having managed anything better since the fourteenth century![27] And, just for the sake of precision in these things, we may note some statistics with respect to the number of editions and publication dates for Dante’s work. For the Commedia itself, however renamed or misnamed by others, we have 8,789 editions published between 1400 and 2011 in 64 languages and held by 7,072 libraries worldwide.[28]

  • Inferno (1,399 editions published between 1515 and 2010 in 45 languages and held by 5,258 libraries)
  • Purgatorio (630 editions published between 1768 and 2011 in 31 languages and held by 2,968 libraries)
  • Paradiso (432 editions published between 1769 and 2010 in 26 languages and held by 2,577 libraries)
  • Vita Nuova[29] (1,033 editions published between 1570 and 2011 in 29 languages and held by 2,246 libraries)
  • Monarchica[30] (298 editions published between 1559 and 2011 in 13 languages and held by 1,464 libraries)
  • Il Convivio[31] (302 editions published between 1490 and 2010 in 9 languages and held by 773 libraries)

I wish to show, in this specificity, the obvious historical vicissitudes in the history of Dante publication. Dante died in 1321, and the masses of publications especially appear from 1400 onwards. Moreover, despite the commedia being all of a piece, the separate publications of the three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) stand out, especially as the latter two works followed independently more than two hundred years after Inferno. Dante’s famous cycle of love poetry Vita Nuova, has enjoyed a nearly equal fame, quantitatively and from date of publication, as the stand-alone Inferno. Also, conceptually there seems something amusing, ironic, or perhaps tragic in the fact that one may encounter the insights of purgatory in more editions, languages, and libraries, than the consolations of paradise.

The mere bluntness of this all as the cash-cow Dante represents does not militate against any aesthetic value in itself; it merely points out how disingenuous the claim sounds that Pinsky, or anyone, seeks to add the 8,790th version of a seven hundred year old book on the grounds of the humanistic values it purports.[32]

Over against the “I know my immediate family first and humanity second” notion of moral development, Nussbaum suggests a narrowing down movement; that one begins generally and this finally collapses (early on) to one’s immediate surroundings. Hence,

a plausible view about the origin of moral thinking is that it is, at least in part, an effort to atone for and regulate the painful ambivalence of one’s love, the evil wishes one has directed toward the giver of care. In atonement for having made the overweening demand to be the center of the universe, the young child agrees to limit and regulate her demands by the needs of others” (142–3).

Endnotes

[1] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism) Boston: Beacon Press, pp. i–xiv, 1–155.

[2] Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, i–xiii, 1–274.

[3] As an adopted child, exiled to life in the United States, I includes Todorov’s additional remark: “I myself, a Bulgarian living in France, borrow this quotation from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who himself found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey.

[4] Pinsky, R. (2002). Eros against Esperanto, in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 85–90.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] Nussbaum, MC (2002). Reply. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 131–44,Boston: Beacon Press.

[6] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[7] Putnam suggest she may have over-reacted to Rorty’s call for a new consideration of patriotism, the very call that elicited Nussbaum’s original essay in the first place.

[8] Obviously, this very premise opens up a whole host of issues regarding my obligations to people I cannot see, and so forth.

[9] As a matter of recognizing situatedness, while one might look far and wide to find someone who has a principled aversion to one of these four virtues of conduct, one will in fact regularly find differences of emphasis about which of these four carries the greatest weight. Negotiating these differences of situatedness through a recognition of the conduct virtues of recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness remains essential as does flagging and resisting moments when someone attempts to (or actually does) flout these virtues.

[10] The whole exchange orchestrated by Nussbaum and Cohen has implicitly non-virtuous elements, insofar as the supposed debate (as a dialogue) consists more of mutually exclusive monologues.

[11] I question to what extent dialogue can occur through a mediated format. Minimally, such an exchange proposes at least one additional layer of representation; I represent my situated position in whatever form I manage (on paper, online) and that provides what my dialoguing interlocutor encounters (as an image of me) as a basis for her own mediated, imagized, representation of a reply, &c.

[12] Butler, J (2002). Universality in culture. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 45–52,Boston: Beacon Press.

[13] Falk, R. (2002). Revisioning cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 53–60,Boston: Beacon Press.

[14] Scarry, E. (2002). The difficulty of imagining other people, In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 97–110,Boston: Beacon Press.

[15] Glazer, N. (2002). Limits of loyalty. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 61–65,Boston: Beacon Press.

[16] Gutman, A. (2002). Democratic citizenship. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 66–71,Boston: Beacon Press.

[17] Himmelfarb, G. (2002). The illusions of cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 72–77,Boston: Beacon Press.

[18] Here, control is an exact synonym for regulation and indicates the external regulation of a system, living or otherwise.

[19] It can hardly come down to a simple yes or no, but at least in terms of public discourse it seems that some of the qualitative aspects of racism that existed prior to the civil Rights movement in the United Stets have experienced an ebb. For committed and structural racists and racisms, this retreat amounts to a retreat to cover and sniffing it out and exposing it remains a crucial social issue. One may agonize as well over whether or not the “naiveté” of the current younger generations about race—i.e., the friendly or apathetic confusion they express about issues of race—do not also (or still) comprise a significant element in the current forms of committed an structural racism. One may say, unpleasantly, that mass incarceration and increasing wealth disparity have “solved” the problem of racism, for instance. But whether these reactionary steps by Power have not just changed but made worse the kind of racism that prevailed prior to Civil Rights requires no glib yes or no either. If the answer fundamentally comes down to yes, then Scarry’s faith in constitutional change as a role model for changes to the constitution of social life becomes problematic.

[20] “Impossible” seems impossible to maintain here but one may substitute “improbable” or “implausible” (on the grounds of mere humanity or enlightened self-interest or even a Hindu realization of identity with another), but we might also suspend disbelief for the time being and entertain the possibility that “impossible” actually applies—perhaps similarly in the sense that Wright and Levac (1995)* describe noncompliance by a psychiatric patient as a “biological impossibility” (1).

Wright, L. M., & Levac, A. M. C. (1992). The non-existence of non-compliant families: The influence of Humberto Maturana. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 17, 913-917. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.1992.tb02018.x

[21] Walzer’s (2002) “Spheres of Affection,” pp. 125-7, permits himself an only trite, short, and smarmy reply, perhaps betrayed by the allusion to “feeling” in his title; Taylor’s (2002) “Why Democracy Needs Patriotism” throws around generalizations without answer why one might need democracy or whether patriotism needs democracy; and Amartya Sen’s (2002) “Humanity and Citizenship” does some of Nussbaum’s work of replying particularly to Bok, Putnam, and especially Himmelfarb, who (what Gutman and Walzer) stands as one of Nussbaum’s most contemptuous respondents.

[22] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[23] Even more so, since she specifically cites statistics on life expectancy in different countries of the world, specifically to refute the notion that the “luck” of these numbers “is not just” (135); and not just luck, one might add.

[24] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[25] This passage, which fails to adequately represent Butler’s (2002) contribution, it seems, also seems to ascribe to Joyce and Whitman this kind of outsider status. Everyone constitutes an outsider somewhere—Joyce as an Irishman stood as an outsider to dominating Britain, and Whitman, as a (more or less closeted homosexual), stood as an outsider to heteronormative culture, but this does not prevent either of them (as white males) from arrogating to themselves the license to depict the Other. In other words, the relationship between outsider and Other stands by no means simple and straightforward—one may rightly ask to what extent Joyce’s representation of Leopold Bloom as Jewish deserves such an evaluation or the justness of making Leopold Bloom, s whatever kind of Jewish person a critic decides Bloom presents, as a representative for all Jewish people. Whether Joyce intended it or not, whether he believed he kept a grip on his thematic material, a favorable critic cannot simply wave away the ways that Leopold Bloom (or Gunga Din in Kipling’s poem) become representatives because their authors represented them. Just because some (aspiring) elements in a society may find a favorable orientalism advantageous (for their political aspirations) does not make the representation any less a representation or any less problematic as a representation of an Other. In Canetti’s (1960)* Crowds and Power, he provides a putative alternative to a sociopathic will to power in people in the political realm, by the sociopaths desire to name and fix and control (if not eliminate) the Other and other people, with what turns out to be a sociopathic will to power in the artistic realm, by the sociopath’s desire to name and fix and control (if not eliminate) the Other and other people in fictional works. So, the problem Nussbaum supposedly solves here—the benefit of cosmopolitanism insofar as in its artistic forms it exposes the universal or most essentially immanent aspects of humanity in general—fails to acknowledge this potentially equally problematic sociopathy that art may contribute to. In a strictly orientalist vein, comprador intellectual Azar Nafisi’s (2003)** right-wing subsidized Reading Lolita in Tehran provides a grotesque example of this as, in fact, does Canetti’s Crowds and Power, albeit in a far less culture-wide sense.

*Canetti, E. (1962). Crowds and power. New York: Viking Press.

**Nafisi, A. (2003). Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books. New York: Random House.

[26] Or so our great shill of modern imperialism, Bloom (1994)* assures us.

*Bloom, H. (1994). The Western canon: the books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.

[27] Not that we English speakers have done any better since Shakespeare (see note 26, just above).

[28] As noted, “No other poem in any language has had such a wide appeal” (see here, as also for the statistics I cite above).

[29] This comprises a cycle of Dante’s love poetry, along with other themes.

[30] This represents Dante’s treatise on political theory, the kind of government best suited for human beings.

[31] This unfinished work offers a kind of vernacular encyclopedia of the knowledge of Dante’s time.

[32] As Amazon.com titillates and then reassures us (the language here gets goes beyond precious) about Pinsky’s translation:

The one quality that all classic works of literature share is their timelessness. Shakespeare still plays in Peoria 400 years after his death because the stories he dramatized resonate in modern readers’ hearts and minds; methods of warfare have changed quite a bit since the Trojan War described by Homer in his Iliad, but the passions and conflicts that shaped such warriors as Achilles, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and Odysseus still find their counterparts today on battlefields from Bosnia to Afghanistan. Likewise, a little travel guide to hell written by the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri in the 13th century remains in print at the end of the 20th century, and it continues to speak to new generations of readers. There have been countless translations of the Inferno [in point of fact, they have been counted, and by one count number 8,789], but this one by poet Robert Pinsky is both eloquent and tailored to our times.

Yes, this is an epic poem, but don’t let that put you off. An excellent introduction provides context for the work, while detailed notes on each canto are a virtual who’s who of 13th-century Italian politics, culture, and literature. Best of all, Pinsky’s brilliant translation communicates the horror, despair, and terror of hell with such immediacy, you can almost smell the sulfur and feel the heat from the rain of fire as Dante–led by his faithful guide Virgil–descends lower and lower into the pit. Dante’s journey through Satan’s kingdom must rate as one of the great fictional travel tales of all time, and Pinsky does it great justice.

Summary (TLDR Version)

A divided narrative makes very different kinds of demands on a reader—and even fundamentally disabuses a reader of the usual selfishly individualistic gratifications and expectations that novels tend to provide.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[2] Monster & Other Stories [Some More]

This reply will likely have nothing to do with Duarte’s book, but instead continues my previous exploratory post about “divided narratives” (from here). I hope not to merely repeat what I said previously—though I’ll have to summarise it—but I stress to you in advance that what I explore here may seem narrowly or emptily focused on merely an aspect of literature (or music), but it actually opens up on the qualities of artistic production in our world in general while suggesting also what we might do to help art regain its force of social transformation (as part of making the world and the world we find immediately around us a more desirable place to live).

Four Types of Collection

Thinking about “collections” both in terms of short stories or musical albums, I would roughly identify four types:

(1) collections where the stories or songs were not composed or collected with any explicit relationship to each other in mind. This describes most anthologies of short stories and most albums of popular music.

(2) collections where the pieces were composed or collected without any explicit relationship to each other but belie an implicit relationship because they bear the mark of their composer’s interests. For instance, collections of stories by Flannery O’Connor or musical albums by Carole King or Tori Amos.

(3) collections of pre-existing (often unrelated) material explicitly pulled together after the fact in order to create a further “artistic statement” out of that material. For instance, the musical examples of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back—an album of covers by himor the Melvin’s We Reach, which features covers of Melvins music by others bands, or books like Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (and perhaps Ellen Gilchrist’s In The Land of Dreamy Dreams or Victory Over Japan, see below), which collect independently composed stories into intentionally meaningful collections.

(4) collections of materials explicitly created with a relationship to the other pieces included in the collection, e.g., concept albums in music (like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Quadrophenia)or books like Joyce’s Dubliners.

An axis of consideration here hinges on whether or not the artist either imagines in advance or in the process of working on something that several smaller pieces might be deliberately and explicitly connected to one another. I don’t know the history of Joyce’s composition of Dubliners, but when I wrote Endnotes, I did not set out knowing that the story “I’m The Only One Who Feels This Way” would ultimately inspire a collection of short stories that I deliberately interconnected. Either way, this makes Dubliners and Endnotes analogous to concept albums like The Wall and Quadrophenia.[3]

Arguably, Dubliners offers us a novel, not a collection of short stories, but this description makes sense more because the novel as a genre itself seems capable of carrying pretty much any structure you can throw at it. And, actually, if we get more anal about what exactly constitutes the sine qua non of the novel as a genre—I won’t do that here, but you might consult in more detail Baldridge’s (1994)[4] The Dialogics of Dissent in the English Novel for some pointers in that direction—we might find that the “collection of short stories as novel” offers some key differences from the novel per se. For one, “while [character development is] not the only structural feature that sets the novel decisively apart from its predecessors, [it] is nevertheless a definitional aspect of the form” (Baldridge, 7).

What constitutes one of the novel’s most decisive breaks with the past, then, is its representation of protagonists whose personalities alter and develop, usually in small and discrete steps, as a result of seemingly nonpredetermined experiences over the course of an extended narrative. Characters in novels, when first encountered, are usually figures whose biographies have not been inscribed in any other text and who therefore appear to possess a relatively “open” future, in which willed action and blind circumstance (in varying proportions) will combine to determine the direction of their subsequent careers (8).

A most salient difference between this and the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners (or my Endnotes) involves a more consequential emphasis on “place” than “individual”. In Joyce’s book, this means, of course Dublin, as in my book, which centres on Olympia, Washington. Similarly, in Egejuru’s (1980)[5] Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers, she cites Achebe’s correction of certain Occidental misreadings of his book Things Fall Apart:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

By presenting, intentionally or not, a narrative not centred on a single individual, but rather on the distribution of individual characteristics over the whole of a city, Joyce (by design or not) gives us a “novel” that more accords with Achebe’s sense of the novel. Certainly the novelistically crucial element of character development seems either wholly absent or present only metaphorically.

Most “concept albums” do not so ambitiously or adroitly reach this kind of high-level cultural statement, but they do intend to elevate the possibilities of the musical album beyond simply the typical collection of individually entertaining songs (type 1) or songs that belie the mark of the person writing them (type 2). Similarly, many sorts of specialized anthologies of short stories collect material after the fact (type 3-style) in order to give us something more than simply an exemplary heap of compositions: my own literary studies, for instance, considered works not normally deemed “Gothic” in light of Gothic tropes, tendencies, and criticism.

For want of a better term, all of these types of collections have an organizational “centre”.

In type 4, one sees this most obviously in the “concept album” where, precisely, the concept forms the organizational centre (as an axis) around which the bulk of material circulates. In Joyce’s case, this meant deliberate or evolved sense on his part that he could organise Dubliners around Dublin itself.[6] This kind of “concept” art (in music and literature) emerges out of from a (developing) pre-existing idea that the artist employs to make the piece.

By contrast, type 3 takes pre-existing disparate material and reworks it into some kind of (hopefully) “new” statement, whether this involves Faulkner reappraising his own work for Go Down Moses or Peter Gabriel performing a selection of covers (i.e., other people’s music) to make an artistic statement of some kind.[7] The main difference between type 3 (reworked collection) and type 4 (concept album) to what degree the materials one works with already have some aesthetic (or artistic) component—in a sense whether one uses wholly formed other pieces or starts “from scratch”. But even then, (as the history of the novel attests) a hard and fast line between “revisiting already extant old material” and “reworking disparate materials from scratch” becomes difficult to insist upon, at least as a generality. When Pink Floyd composed “Comfortably Numb,” not only did they draw inspiration from the whole body of pre-existing music they knew, but part of this included their own previous work.

I suggest we may find this distinction between “reworked material” and “from scratch” most readily in the familiarity of the reader or listener. For example, for those who first heard The Wall or Quadrophenia, the albums (though by well-known bands) most likely seemed like music encountered for the first time (i.e., as if “from scratch”), even if they were familiar with the music of Pink Floyd or Who touch. By contrast, to hear the several covers by Peter Gabriel, a whole history of other listenings to other versions comes into play; in fact, Gabriel’s project (like tribute albums generally) seems to presuppose this. He intends us to compare “his versions” to “other version”.

Similarly, the reading public generally encountered Joyce’s Dubliners whole-cloth (“from scratch), whereas with Faulkner’s Go Down Moses most of the stories (if not all of them) had appeared previously in magazines, sometimes in very different forms.[8] So, notwithstanding that few people had probably encountered all of the stories Faulkner had previously published, nonetheless Go Down Moses offered the public a sometimes radically different re-visitation of those separately, disparately published stories.

In both the type 3 and type 4 case, then, a unifying “concept” organises the material, but in type 3 the author or composer finds herself at more pains to deal with everything that already inheres to the piece worked with—as when Gabriel has to decide how he approaches a particular cover, most likely taking into account along the way all, many, or some of the other versions of the song that already exist.

In any case, and whatever claim one might about a composer or author’s intentions, type 3 and type 4 both have some kind of organizational centre that serves to inform the project as a whole. Call this an “intrinsic organizational centre”. BY contrast, anthologies of short stories or music by multiple artists (type 1) or collections of short stories or music by single artists (type 2) do not generally have any overall unifying concept that relates to the material in the collection itself. This does not mean the compilers did so in a random or haphazard way. One may often easily discerned an attention to detail in the sequencing of the pieces (especially on musical albums). More banally, one also sees in type 1 compilations a financial motive clearly at work, as certain obvious or celebrated songs or short stories wind up over and over again in such compilations. Here, the organizational centre seems extrinsic to the content of the works themselves.

As far as the power of art as a socially transformative force goes, type 1 and type 2 collections necessarily fail to active this power, however powerful or moving a given song or short story feels. I mean by this that any given song or short story might (still) possess all of the artistic power it ever did but the context where it occurs as part of a collection does not support, and more likely diminishes, that power, in the same way—as Enki Bilal’s (2014)[9] Phantoms of the Louvre suggests, whether deliberately or accidentally—that museums undermine and diminish the power of art. The briefest way to make this points means underscoring the extrinsic organizational centre for such collections; every individual work in the collection exists not for itself or its effects but for whatever (extrinsic) purpose the compilations serves (typically to make money or increase the social cache of the writer/performer).

All of this talk about “collections” serves to shed light on what we might call a specific kind of collection: the divided narrative.

Divided Narratives

What I mean by a divided narrative needs more detail (forthcoming) but I must also distinguish it from other narrative forms (specifically from the novel in general). Faulkner’s (1939)[10] If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem previouslysuggested (see here) the example of a divided narrative that started this entire speculation, but the question came up in light of the apparently random compilation of graphic stories in Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[11]Monsters! and Other Stories.

To look first at the book that started this, Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem offers two stand-alone narratives (“The Wild Palms” and “Old Man”) that he intercuts together. The two elements to emphasise here: (1) both stories could stand on their own as complete works, without editing or modification (i.e., both offer long short stories or novellas); and (2) the intercutting keeps interrupting both narratives (i.e., the work keeps cutting cuts back and forth between the two narratives, telling a portion of each until the book ends), unlike a collection of novellas, like King’s (1983)[12] Different Seasons, where we get each whole novella all of a piece, one at a time.

By contrast, novels will sprawl over any number of sub-plots, cutting back and forth between them as necessary, but less in the mode of a divided narrative than more. For one, most material in a novel tends to resemble something more like a type 3 or type 4 collection; that is, all of the material collected gets organized around an intrinsic organizational centre. Except in some very large novels (or sometimes in short but sloppily written ones), we have only one protagonist and all of the subplots and whatnot serve to colour, contrast, or support the protagonist’s main arc. Even in something as massive and sprawling as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre (the protagonist) and his development comprise the centre of the book; even the love story of Andrei and Sonia, while essential, deliberately serves Tolstoy’s purpose of showing Pierre’s story in a certain light. In other words, the main plot sub-ordinates the sub-plots. In a divided narrative, both narratives make equal demands upon the reader’s attention—neither narrative forms a sub-plot of the other.

Hence, the impressive and remarkable capacity of the novel to switch its attention from one area of focus to another does not automatically or inherently reflect what happens when a divided narrative switches attention. Here, it feels more as if the narrative we switch to has no “knowledge” of the other one; it may even seem a wholly different world. Thus, a divided narrative may sometimes feel like an anthology (or even more like a couple of novellas crammed together), except that the author has (presumably) placed these narratives in proximity to one another for a purpose, even if she doesn’t (seem to) let them communicate.[13]

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at times has the quality of a divided narrative, insofar as the Sam and Frodo part of the narrative (once they leave the main group) seems utterly disconnected from all of the other various political shenanigans and adventures traced in other parts of the book(s). And this points to a risk in a divided narrative. For readers principally hooked by or drawn to the Sam and Frodo part of the story, all the rest of the book(s) may seem gratuitous digressions (or vice versa). Similarly in Faulkner’s book: readers not moved either by the plight of the woman and her lover (“The Wild Palms”) or the convict and the pregnant woman in a boat on the river (“Old Man”) may feel bored or at a loss why Faulkner included either a narrative at all.

For those familiar with group role-playing, especially Dungeons & Dragon, the divided narrative can appear in an annoying way when one player in the group takes his or her character off independently. The DM must then conduct (generally secret) side conversations while everyone waits for that piece of divided narrative to get handled or wrapped up. Sometimes these side conversations amount to little more than interrupting digressions, but other times they can introduce a whole new story element into the campaign played.

Besides the annoying selfishness of this (on the part of the player who personally hogs the DM’s time to himself), part of what makes this narratively problematic (relative to the on-going story of the roleplaying in the first place) concerns how it changes the orientation of the story (the group-written story created by the role-players as they play). In other words, while the story previously seemed about X (i.e., whatever the group understands as their group goals, &c), this digression by a single individual adds another branch or strand or bit of narrative to the story, thus changing it.

Immediately, we understand that this “new” story element integrally relates to the “old” story. This element doesn’t enter the picture only or merely as gratuitous digression. It becomes a part of the story (in fact, it has always been a part of the story, we just didn’t know it) that we have to take account of. In roleplaying terms, of course, this means the gaming group does not have only to complete whatever quest or thing they’ve gotten sent on, but also to deal with this new side element—so the addition doesn’t make for something everyone can simply ignore.

Part of what may make this sort of thing unwelcome (for most in the group, though welcome for the one who initiated it) involves the change in narrative expectations. Everyone thought the adventure consisted of X, but actually it consists of Y. We could read this kind of “split” then also in how Tolkien keeps cutting away from all the other material in his book(s) to “deal with” the Sam and Frodo narrative. If initially the reader believes we will follow the whole group from start to finish, the divided narrative changes that expectation (for better or worse, depending upon the temperament of the reader). Those who already find Aragorn pretentious or boring may delight in cutting away from him (or vice versa).

What does any of this sound like in music? To deploy a very literal version of a divided narrative, imagine taking two current pop songs and cutting them together sequentially. Here again, if we like one of the songs but not the other, we may find ourselves annoyed or put off by the disliked song as we wait (impatiently) for the good stuff to come around again. It seems easy to imagine that hearing such a thing would leave one wondering, “Why did someone bother to cut these two songs cut together this way?”

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any musical piece that does exactly this. But the standard song format of verse-chorus does something like it in the way it intercuts back and forth. Similarly, very often the chorus (very much by design) has more melodiousness, a more hummable melody, or whatnot. In other words, part of the function of the verse seems designed to make us crave or look forward to the chorus. We might sometimes find ourselves wishing the song consisted only of the chorus, &c. To the extent that the chorus subordinates the verse to itself, then we don’t have an exact analogy with a divided narrative. It seems much easier (or at least much more common) to juxtapose two apparently unrelated narratives than to juxtapose two apparently unrelated (verse/chorus) pieces of music. Nonetheless, Mike Patton’s Mr Bungle (and other projects by him) often deploy something like this.

Imagine a song with a death metal verse and a lounge-music chorus,[14] however dissimilar the parts might strike us on a first listening, and however much we might despise one or the other (or both) parts of the song, we will still tend to understand it holistically, as a total piece. We have to stop and remember how we first heard the song—gloriously banging our head as the death metal chugged out, but then feeling our jaw drop when the lounge music kicks in. Puzzled, we then happily bang our head again when the death metal returns. &c. Divided narrative. And from that point forward, we look forward with dread or loathing to the lounge-music chorus. Or this all runs the opposite way: we want to switch off the death metal, only to delight in the lounge music chorus, hoping the song has finally gotten its head straight. Then the return of the death metal. Sadness. &c.

But once the song ends after our first listening, now we have a sense of the whole thing. We can wonder, happily or with a gnashing of teeth, why anyone would put a song together like that. Whatever expectations we had going into the song (for or against death metal or lounge music), now that we know the whole thing, our expectations have (for better or worse) changed. We know now that we will get death metal and lounge music in equal portions from this particular abomination (or blesséd aerial spirit).

So a divided narrative (as the musical example suggests) offers a curious experience in that it especially breaks down or challenges our expectations while we read (or listen). I think most people don’t like this (more on this shortly), but whatever thwarting of expectation this brings, once the piece ends, we have (or can drum up) more of a sense of “what it was really all about”. In all probability, we did not figure out why we were getting handed their parts in sequence (by the author, the songwriter), and now that we’ve reached the end, we might piece together an answer, if only because the author/songwriter no longer defeats our expectations (again) by adding more material.

I overstate things slightly. When I hear death metal followed by lounge music, I likely enter some degree of confusion. When the music then switches back to death metal, I might hazard any number of different explanations. Maybe the songwriter meant the lounge-music chorus as a joke, for instance (and I might thrum with joy to return to the soothing world of death metal). But when the chorus of lounge-music returns, I have much more of a suspicion that the songwriter hasn’t just veered temporarily into a wholly dissimilar music as a joke. The chorus, in fact, might still embody a joke, but it has become a different kind of joke now. The first time offered (possibly) a digression, but when it hangs around officially as the actual chorus, the joke becomes integral, not incidental. &c.

In fact, the A-B-A (verse/chorus) song structure has a similar experiential feel. I get used to the verse (as a musical gesture) and then “suddenly” I get confronted by some different material (the chorus), which afterwards shifts back to the verse. In this case, the chorus usually remains in the same “genre” as the verse, even if the music of the chorus seems very different (or even in a different key). The metal of the Seattle band Nevermore very consistently deploys this sort of thing, placing much more melodious choruses after variously aggressive metal verses. &c.

The main difference, of course, hinges on the fact that the A-B-A structure generally doesn’t veer outside of the genre it starts in, but we nevertheless might still find ourselves resenting the verse (or the chorus) because the chorus (or the verse) more engage us. But also, along the way, a standard A-B-A song structure usually won’t overtax our expectations to the point that we say, “What the fuck?” (even in cases where we don’t like the verse or the chorus equally).

Music that proposes a divided narrative, like the death metal/lounge-music example, would. But this does not mean that when Tolkien shifts from Sam and Frodo to everyone else, or when Faulkner shifts from “The Wild Palms” to “Old Man” that either of them switch genres. Tolkien and Faulkner alike remain within the ambit of the writing they start with; rather, the reader’s expectations gets twitted. In music, songwriters have a “simple” way to twit expectations by smashing disparate genres together. A literary writer might do the same expect that the novel has long enabled such genre-cramming—Bakhtin points this out extensively—and our familiarity with the novel makes this kind of move now seem so normal it hardly fazes us. Rather, a writer (wishing to break expectations in this way) needs to shift attention to a wholly unrelated narrative. Or, rather, that offers one excellent way to achieve this effect.

Meanwhile, in the same way that we can decide at the end of a death metal/lounge-music song “what it really means,” we have the opportunity once a literary divided narrative ends also to make a similar determination. In Tolkien’s case, his divided narrative reunites, so we have a work that only partially presents an example of the form. Faulkner’s book, by contrast, leaves the division of the narratives completely intact.

Of course, while we hear an A-B-A song (made of “standard stuff” or a death metal/lounge-music contrast or not), we will make tentative conclusions along the way as to “what it’s all about”. Human beings “are” meaning-making beings; we can’t not make meaning except that we have died or in a vegetative coma (and maybe not even then). And in a similar way, readers of Faulkner’s book will make tentative conclusions along the way as to “what it’s all about” (i.e., why Faulkner crams these two narratives together).

Let me say, if I have not already, Faulkner may have crammed these two narratives together because he had two novellas on his hands, and novellas hardly ever get published. If so, I’ve no doubt that Faulkner after the fact would have offered any number of lovely reasons why (on artistic grounds) the two narratives warranted their cramming together. Let this point hold, it doesn’t change the characteristics of a divided narrative; it only explains how Faulkner came (on non-artistic grounds) to offer one to the public.

But also, the fact that a divided narrative (like Faulkner’s book) more or less places an additional responsibility on the reader after finishing her reading to figure out “what it was all about” (i.e., why these two narratives co-occur) does not give them the sole authority to speak on it and does not negate whatever (artistic) intention Faulkner felt moved by.

Confronted by a death metal/lounge-music song, two things seem certain: (1) the listener understands unambiguously that the songwriter has gotten up to something, and (2) whatever the listener’s expectations in music—even her expectations specifically about death metal and lounge music—the song has put the listener into a zone where previous experience and expectations offer little (or no) guidance. So, these two facts diminish an absolute claim (on the part of the listener) to authoritatively declare “what it all means” (because the field of their experience and expectation offers little or nothing in the present case) while also underscoring the intentional authority of the songwriter (because one can hardly miss the fact that two wildly disparate, even inappropriate, genres have gotten mashed together deliberately).

This may explain, in part, why people frequently dislike divided narratives and why, in fact, they occur (in a form as exaggerated or “pure” as Faulkner’s) only rarely. However, insofar as the A-B-A song structure occurs a bazillion times a day, we see in this that the experience of it represents operates only something like a divided narrative, as opposed to the death metal/lounge-music version, which presents a divided narrative per se. This shows also how Tolkien’s narrative—in the fact that it ends with a reunion—offers only something like a divided narrative,[15] and (all else being equal) its popularity may result partly from the resolved tension of the narrative’s division.

But both the standard A-B-A song and Tolkien’s narrative bring something of a closure to the dividedness in the work. The composer enforces this closure, with an infinitely repeated chorus at the end or a tidy summing up of that action, &c. With a divided narrative per se, we get no such closure—so at this point it needs adding that our death metal/lounge-music song needs to exit out its back end in some innovative way lest it seem merely some perverse variety of A-B-A. Or, speaking more precisely, it does represent a perverse variety of A-B-A (and thus offers no innovation in form, but only in content; it shows that the “rule”—a song cannot switch genres—needn’t be followed. And this does indeed twit our expectations, but more about what we might “permit” in songs and less how songs gets constructed.) In Faulkner’s case, the last section of “Old Man” ends and with that the book ends—the other narrative “The Wild Palms” itself has already ended.

Many authors writing something like this would feel tempted, no doubt, to add an epilogue—if not in fact to provide closure in the book then at least to give a clue to the reader (perhaps) “what it’s all about” (i.e., why the two narratives were crammed together). The difference between music and literature intrudes in all of this.

For one thing, we all know the A-B-A song structure so well, that even if a songwriter belligerently repeated A-B-A-B-A-B without variation, we would still tend to read “B” as the “chorus” and would still feel that “B” marked a kind of correct or appropriate end to the piece. With Faulkner’s book, or a divided literary narrative generally, after establishing the A-B-A-B switch between narratives, no end to this really resonates as complete. The narratives will come to an end (everyone might have died, &c), but simply to stop (not so much end) on “B” (or “A”) will tend to feel more arbitrary. The sequence simply ought to continue (and an author might leverage exactly that sense, to create an open-ended feel).

But the specific sort of register or feeling or failure of a literary divided narrative’s end still differs from its musical counterparts. To put this one way, literary divided narratives stop rather than end, whereas our overwhelming familiarity with musical forms makes even a divided musical narrative seem to end rather than just stop. Of course, knowing this, a songwriter may find ways to make her divided narrative stop rather than end: breaking off in mid-musical phrase, appending some entirely alien material not present earlier in the song, &c.

And all of this, again, points to the non-popularity of divided narratives.

I would suggest that these days—if not in the days of yore since the advent of the middle class—the consumption of cultural productions serves that ideology of selfish individualism that dwells at the heart of capitalism (as one of its big selling and bragging points). Many critics have noted the “subjectivity” and “self-gratification” of the novel-reading experience (Baldridge, 1994). In this way, the notion that “whatever you make of it is right” discourages readers and listeners from any kind of constraint on their listening and reading. Not to say this inherently sucks, but certainly for the artist who had something in mind, this “customer is always right” attitude toward cultural products (1) pus authorial intention not just in the back seat but in the trunk, and (2) undermines the capacity of art of exercise its transformative power in culture.

Why? Substantial change entails a change to a thinking and behaviour not previously known to a person. If a cultural production permits me to follow the known channels of my experience, i.e., that which I already know causes me pleasure, then this path of least resistance pretty much by definition cannot comprise the path of change.

Thus, although a reader or listener always, at the end of a piece, has some amount of “work” to do to make sense of that piece, the kind or degree of work required (in this era of encouraged selfish individualism) will only consist of that work we already stand ready to do. A piece that asks us to do what we don’t want will generally get set aside.

The structure of a divided narrative, such as Faulkner’s book, thus not only very pointedly throws the presence of the author into the midst of the readers otherwise masturbatory reverie (because who else but Faulkner can get blamed for this ridiculous presence of two unrelated narratives in one book) but also places certain kinds of interpretive constraints on the reader that less often appear, or make themselves far, far less palpably and pressing felt, in non-divided narratives.

In War and Peace, for all of the sympathy that Tolstoy exhibits towards Andrei and Sonia, it remains hard to miss that he considers it less pressing that the dilemma facing Pierre.[16] A reader rather easily can pick up Tolstoy’s intended contrast, although thousands of readers have nonetheless felt that Andrei and Sonia’s story makes the core of the book. By contrast, a reader seems more in the dark how to even orient the relationship between the man and woman in “The Wild Palms” and the man and woman in “Old Man.”

I do not mean countless readers and critics have offered interpretations, or that readers never follow their path of least resistance in “reading out” the stories they want to read from the two narratives. I mean, rather, that the sorts of markers that, in novel, connect the dots between different narrative elements (whether the author does so overtly or unconsciously) “are” actually not connected in a divided narrative. The reader adds them, but we get asked to precisely without those usual markers and not in the usual way.

On the one hand, this makes “path of least resistance reading” even easier. But readers usually like to have (or at least congratulate themselves with the conceit) that they have correctly read the book, that “their” reading makes sense. When they get on an Internet forum and talk to others, they might quickly find their boneheadedness exposed to all (i.e., someone insisting that Andrei and Sonia present the most important part of Tolstoy’s book). But with a divided narrative, where one can hardly miss that any assertion of a link between the narratives comes only as a hypothetical offer, then the kind of work to “prove the case” no longer requires the usual tricks and tropes of reading.

But in a far more mundane way than all of this, a most basic “offense” at work in the divided narrative involves the endlessly recurring doubt that these two stories should co-occur. Again, critics have spent quite a bit of ink patiently reassuring us that Faulkner explicitly draws links between the two narratives, but if we take the spirit of its divided narrative seriously (even to the point of reminding Faulkner he might have gotten it wrong about his own text), then we have to admit that this kind of insistence on links needs grounding in something other than our usual tricks and tropes of reading.

A most banal example of this: that the story consists of a man and a woman will easily tempt people into a (heteronormative) “Adam and Eve”-like scenario. And certainly Faulkner helps us along in veering in this direction. But we have no justification for this, even when someone points to the relentless use of biblical material Faulkner liked to resort to.

I do not mean to say that such an interpretive tack (1) yields nothing interesting, or (2) “is wrong”; rather, the interpretive premise it rests on does not find its support from the narrative itself but only from the imagination of the reader.

Just to mention specifically, one of Faulkner’s most persistent, agonized, and most recurring themes concerns the human attempt to turn the disparate chaos of being into “history” (along with all of the contestations and multiplicity of voices that entails). In many of his books, often as much by accident as by design, he presents readers with multiple versions of events, shows various characters trying to make interpretive sense of those events themselves, and thus invites or offers the reader to join that fray. To take up the fundamentally human task of trying to make sense of a baffling and confusing (and often tragic) welter of events.

Perhaps more than any other of his works, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem makes a structural principle of this theme. He presents us with two unrelated narratives, both equally making demands on our attention for significance, and thus places us in the position of his characters in other books. In this scenario, and in part because the contested issue concerns “the qualities of history” and not just “my subjective reading of history” (contra Canetti), the book forces us to have to consider something more like an objective reality (i.e., whatever “reality” we shall all, consensually, acknowledge as the case, rather than some reductionist notion of “fact”). Whatever typically masturbatory luxury of “reading” we try to indulge, the presence of the wholly unrelated divided narratives keeps intruding to break that reverie.

Most assuredly, as Faulkner goes on giving us more and more from each narrative, we will keep spinning up whatever (tentative) sense of “what it all means” as we go, but this occurs not in the context of a “standard novel” (where a reveal functions rather like exposing some piece in a puzzle) but instead obtrudes “alien material” that has no ready marker or clue (from the author) how we should fit it in. This seems, in my opinion, to profoundly embody that human experience of transforming “chaos” into “history”.

In a “standard novel,” one might attempt this, of course, but at every point along the way, the overarching unity of “world” that the novelist presupposes always already makes us either (1) assume the presence of a marker of relevance (to the plot generally) and incorporate the new bit accordingly, or (2) feel angrily or delightfully challenged by an apparent anomaly, which we assume we will later integrate (or forget about). In a divided narrative, the literal presence of two worlds makes all such sense-making tentative at best. But—again to dwell on the most basic experience of it—because things in one world carry a specific marker of non-relatedness to the other world, we may (or will) constantly come up against the question, “Why is he telling me this?” And very often, rather than more or less confidentially feeling some answer will eventually come about, we read on with a far less sanguine faith that maybe we will not get an answer.

Or, since this book originates with Faulkner not Hemingway, it means we will have to work to make an answer that makes sense not just for “me” but for “us”. However often Faulkner’s characters seem doomed, they nevertheless refuse defeat. In the face of the chaos of the cosmos, they don’t get the easy answers of nihilism and giving up but also not the easy answers of “it’s whatever I say it is”. Thus, to every insisted upon interpretation of Faulkner’s book, one may ask the critic not “why that” but “why do you want that”?

And that question becomes available generally where we encounter a divided narrative. This presence of social (not individual) interpretation thus links the divided narrative to the specific socially transformative power of art. In this respect, it no longer seems surprising that people have generally overlooked this novel by Faulkner. As a divided narrative, it will certainly least encourage the reader (lover of Faulkner or not) to have the kind of sweeping aesthetic experience that novels (and Faulkner’s novels in particular) provide.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics, pp. 1–87.

[3] And, of course, Tommy as well.

[4] Baldridge, C. (1994). The dialogics of dissent in the English novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England

[5] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

[6] I want to at least stress how all of these types involve compilations, whether with malice aforethought (like The Wall or Endnotes) or after the fact (e.g., anthologies or the Melvins tribute album). Obviously, a typical novel consists of “collections of chapters” and the like. And the history of the novel shows enough complexity that to claim some essential difference between “constructing a novel out of disparate materials” (such as short stories, like Joyce did) compared to authors who “construct novels out of disparate materials” (of all sorts, like they all do) will lead quickly to difficulties in trying to maintain the distinction I would make. Even at a sort of basic level, to say that what distinguishes Joyce’s work (or my Endnotes) involves the entirely stand-alone character of each story doesn’t necessarily guarantee that such a “short story” can’t get construed as a “chapter” (of a book). And, in fact, we will find hundreds of thousands of examples of exquisitely crafted chapters in books that could, like a short story, get lifted out of the text and praised simply on its own. So, whatever difficulty this proposes, at least in the case of Joyce’s book, the only “real” connection between the characters of the different (and unrelated) stories arises from their shared environment (Dublin) but also the fact that we read them as one. In a typical novel, the most disparately unrelated chapter gets “read” into whatever we conceptualise as the “plot” overall. Nothing in Joyce’s text demands that we connect “Araby” (the first story) to “The Dead” (the last) in any way, except again that we know of the shared environment (Dublin).

[7] Singing personalities, like Andy Williams, Madonna, and thousands of others, when they sing an album, do not typically or explicitly aspire to make some kind of “artistic statement” out of singing other people’s music. The object remains merely for the sake of entertainment and economics, both of which may play a role in artistic production, but which comprise only a part of artistic production in toto.

[8] “The Bear” had appeared in a much shorter version.

[9] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing.

[10] Faulkner, W. (2011). The Wild Palms:[If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]: Random House LLC.

[11] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics.

[12] King, S. (1983). Different seasons: Penguin.

[13] The intercutting of the narratives also differs from an anthology.

[14] It wouldn’t surprise me to find a piece by Mike Patton doing exactly this.

[15] A difference here involves the scale of time. Novels run long; songs run short. However much a verse sucks, we will get back to the chorus fairly quickly. In the case of Tolkien’s book, one spends quite a few pages in one of the “wrong” narratives, and this may more quickly dissuade a reader from continuing. Although, short attention spans that people have these days, even the scant few seconds of a disliked verse might prove more than enough to make someone change radio stations or skip to the next song.

[16] This very fact, I would suggest, helps to make Andrei and Sonia’s circumstance more powerful in the book.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Tirres claims that the rituals he observes subvert the categories of “us” and “them” without acknowledging that non-Christians remain “them” with respect to those in the ritual. Meanwhile, what seems like his enthusiasm at discovering a solution to the problem of (his own?) disengaged sense of faith permits him to set up an authoritarian lens for interpreting these rituals; one where the experts (he and the festival organisers) get permitted the main voices heard in the analysis. In a liberation theology context, where making space so the voiceless may heard represents a fundamental gesture, this authoritarianism appeal to expertise seems radically misguided. Where may we find the voice of the Other in this chapter?

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 2]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 here.

In his second chapter, Tirres focuses “ethnographically” on the Good Friday liturgies at a church in San Antonio. His basic claim involves that the dramatic public performance of ritual—a modern passion play—sets the stage to merge a visceral and immediate (aesthetic) experience of faith with an ethical, transformative impulse as well. In other words, the passion play does not serve merely as a (profound) entertainment but also calls people to change their lives toward answering the ethical call of Catholicism, i.e., an awareness for helping the poor, comforting families affected by gang violence, &c. He sees these public rituals as offering the kind of experience that transcends the “aesthetic or ethical” split currently dominant in (academic) discussions of faith. In other words, it shows his desire to “approach the aesthetic and the ethical as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience, which is still, unfortunately, the reigning approach today” (6).

He describes at length not only the various components of these public rituals but also the explicit compositional decisions its organisers make in order to make the ritual currently relevant (e.g., having someone sing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Webber and Rice’s (1970) Jesus Christ Superstar.) He identifies this kind of gesture of “updating” as an attempt to explicitly link past and present, so that there and then becomes open to experience as here and now. Thus, what might remain only at the level of (profound) entertainment—an important story about something that happened a long time ago—becomes transformed into something that has necessary and immediate relevance and meaning now. He similarly emphasises several dramaturgical moves that collapse the distinction (or help to collapse the distinction) between actor and audience, or audience and participant in the action of the passion play.

Tirres seems to report this as some kind of striking innovation, but in both theatre and ritual this kind of gesture has ancient antecedents. Eliade (1954)[3] long ago established a function of ritual to return as returning its participants to “archetypal time”—i.e., collapsing past and present—and even in the domain of epic poetry, it too collapses the here and now of its listeners to an archetypal time before time, or a kind of Golden Age (Bakhtin, 1981).[4]

Regardless, the apparent narrowness of Tirres’ claim does not negate it. He writes:

Insofar as popular ritual obscures the distinction between past and present, popular ritual also invites one to revisit the meaning of tradition and one’s relationship to the larger community. Is the purpose of one’s tradition primarily to conserve the past, to return to that which the community has always held dear? Or does one understand tradition as a dynamic give-and-take between present and past, wherein one selectively retrieves elements of the past in order to meet the changing demands of the present and future? As the San Fernando Good Friday liturgies seem to suggested, present experience has as much claim on ritual participants as do the archetypal stories of the past. At San Fernando, tradition is not only re-claimed by ritual actors, but also, re-crafted (40).

I should say now, if I have a primary criticism of this chapter, it arises from the fact that Tirres makes (and generally supports) broad claims for how ritual collapses and transcends dichotomous categories (like past and present) while at the same time remaining mired in dichotomies in his analysis. Here, for instance, he asks whether the tradition acts to conserve the past or offer a dynamic give-and-take between present and past. More still needs saying, but this suffices to flag the issue.

One thing very missing from the above paragraph from Tirres involves the question: who decides the purpose of ritual (i.e., whether it conserves the past or signals a dynamic give-and-take between past and present). For this specific passion play, the rituals’ organizers, albeit with “democratic” gestures towards others, decide the shape and dramaturgy of the event. I do not mean to say by this that they do with ideological malice aforethought. Let them act in an authentically religiously committed way, they still serve as the gatekeepers for what the ritual publicly intends.

More generally, and insofar as Tirres invokes (if obliquely) the social “theme” around how tradition and innovation interact within a culture, we might turn to Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[5] Northern Tribes of Central Australia.[6] Spencer and Gillen record at least one instance where a younger (adult) male attempts to insert an innovation into a long established ritual practice. This innovation becomes subject to approval (i.e., prohibition or support) by the group’s elders. As such, an innovation might occur once but then be suppressed in future ritual performances or it might become integrated into all future performances. But the very fact that such innovation might occur at all runs contrary to the conventional insistence that traditional cultures never change or do so only accidentally. Spencer and Gillen show instead how such change may come about, although with a great deal of cultural inertia and political resistance from the established elders. Further, one imagines that when this younger adult male reaches the status of elder, he might re-implement his innovation (if it has remained suppressed over the years), subject to political finagling with his elder peers.

So we may understand, in the “dialogue” between conservatism and innovation as far as past and present go, to speak of tradition as an either/or fails to acknowledge that some group has the power to determine an answer to this question. Thus, any give-and-take does not occur between tradition as a conservation of the past versus tradition as a dynamic give-and-take of past and present, but between the people who hold those positions and content political, culturally, about it. Tirres does not tell us what gestures or events done “by the public” during these rituals ever get taken up as permanent parts of future rituals, for instance. We do not know to what extent unsolicited requests by “the public” to add or modify elements of the ritual get implemented, although he does tell us how the organisers solicit and attempt to distribute compositional responsibility to others besides themselves.

This absence of a power analysis seems problematic if not disingenuous, especially in a context where one has the looming history of Vatican authority forever lingering in the background and in contrast to a liberation movement that expressly challenges (usually secular) Power. Moreover, insofar as liberation theology aims to take up the cause of the voiceless, it seems very questionable as well that Tirres provides only principally his voice as the representative lens for the event. Ethnographic work requires self-conscious reflection, which Tirres gives very little of, but since he must have had access not just to the organisers of the ritual, who he quotes, he could have at least found informant-participants from the rituals themselves to validate his claims about the function of the ritual. Very early on, he names one organiser who has changed the ethos of the ritual’s organization; Tirres presents this to contrast a previous situation described by one woman that Tirres identifies only as “a long-time cast member of the via crucis” (32): that “some members of the cast participated just because they wanted to be on television” (33).

I will make a lot of hay about this. Why should Tirres provide neither this woman’s name nor her actual words? He only refers to her (as a long-time cast member) and only indirectly quotes her statement. This, in contrast to the (male) ethos-changing organiser, who not only gets named but (in a perhaps unfortunate irony) also gets his picture in the book in the costume of the lead Roman soldier. I don’t at all mean to suggest an active sexist conspiracy here, but see this as simply part for the course. Even if Tirres noted a possible problem in reporting the matter this way, it didn’t rise to the level of significance in his (or his editor’s) view.

In other contexts, this may seem no less glaring but at least less problematic. Here, where the aim to speak for the voiceless stands at the centre of the project described, to render this woman nameless and to not allow her own voice to enter the text, even though Tirres clearly spoke to her, rings very much more problematically.

In the paragraph immediately preceding the one quoted at length above, Tirres writes:

In its own way, popular ritual at San Fernando engages quintessential moral questions. As we have seen, it raises important questions about who “we” are. What is our identity, and to whom are we accountable? By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work. Participants move from being modern, Mexican-American Christians to being first-centuty Jews, from isolated individuals to members of a broader spiritual community, from passive onlookers to active agents who shape narrative meaning (40).

Several bits want unpacking here.

First, you (my reader) might be struck by Tirres’ summarised assertion here that modern, Mexican-American Christians transform into (or simply identify with) first-century Jews. Previously, Tirres cited how historical performances of Passion plays have at times have notoriously leveraged anti-Jewish sentiment (as the “killers of Christ”) while the San Fernando ritual, by contrast, explicitly or implicitly seeks to resist that tradition. “Likewise, [the presiding priest] also reminds participants that they, as Christians, share a social connection with Jews. Both groups are part of the pueblo, the ‘People of God’” (27). This “widened appeal to God’s pueblo encourages participants to think about their own social identity in more comprehensive and interconnecting ways.

Of course, this temporal bridging of identity marks another (attempted) collapsing of categories, but Tirres’ analysis (at a minimum) begs the question of this identity. Historically speak, who constitutes a first-century Jew and what element of identification gets highlighted here. In theory, any first-century Jew who accepted Yeshua bin Yusuf as a messiah not only like would have seen him in political rather than spiritual terms, even in spiritual terms he represented a schismatic heresy against Orthodox tradition. But how do modern Mexican-Americans, participating in a ritual that depicts the dominant and orthodox discourse in the United States, acting heretically? Quite the opposite.

The most obvious emphasis seems the oft-repeated persecution of early Christians, but if first-century Jews did really suffer persecution (whether as religious schismatics or at the hands of Roman authorities), that suffering bears no resemblance to the typically self-pitying cries of “persecution” by modern Christians. Once again, this disingenuous whining seems ridiculous enough already but in a liberation theology context, where the cry “you’re oppressing me” goes up from mainline religious because the poor and disenfranchised call them to task for their complacency, abuse of power, and hypocrisy, the claim for such an identity (between modern Christians and first-century Jews) becomes especially gross.

We needn’t “blame” Tirres for this fact; whether he supports the claim or not, he simply reports the intention of the ritual’s organisers. Much more troublingly, Tirres fails in two ways to ground the claim, “By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work” (40). First, as already noted, his own work in this chapter remains shot through with unresolved, non-transcended dichotomous categories, such as the dichotomy between a tradition that conserves the past or the offers a dynamic give-and-take between past and present. And in his work so far, this failure to transcend dichotomies colours his whole work, as he fails to mediate his main analytical categories, i.e., the “aesthetic” and the “ethical”. Mind you, his description of the Good Friday liturgies does show ways that the organisers have at least attempted to collapse distinctions like past and present; whether the rituals actually affect this remains harder to tell, since Tirres gives us only his interpretive lens for the event and no surveys or empirical research from the participants.

Second, and much more seriously, nothing in what Tirres reports suggest a subverting of the category of “us” and “them”. In the first place, the ritual itself serves as a massive demonstration of a powerful “us” to the surrounding city (“them”). This spectacle of Power certainly demands participation only in its own terms. Tirres takes this as so self-evident that he cites Cisneros’ (1992) claim that if you “want spiritual, the real spirit of [San Antonio], I’ll show you. Go to San Fernando Cathedral” (qtd. In Tirres, 14). Tirres later repeats, “By most accounts, San Fernando Cathedral is San Antonio’s spiritual center, its ‘soul of the city’” (20).

Where do atheists, Muslims (even Jews) play into the ritual’s public display of power or the discourse that by most (Christian) accounts reckons San Fernando Cathedral as the ‘soul of the city’?

But this principled social element aside, even within the context of the ritual itself Tirres shows evidence that the categories of “us” and “them” do not collapse but, in fact, get reinforced. We see this most obviously in the presence of Roman troops who put the hero to death,[7] but Tirres even provides an instance where “an older lady was so upset that she threw a punch at a nearby Roman soldier who was whipping and prodding Jesus along the road to Calvary. ‘¡Ya basta!,’ she screamed at the bewildered actor” (37). Rather bizarrely, Tirres then immediately transitions from this anecdote, where “us” and “them” stand clearly still in stark relief, and starts discussing how “the aesthetics of ritual moves toward the ethical … when ritual experience collapses the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (37).

If we take his report at face value, then the ethical change here involves the encouragement of violence toward those who oppose the Christian ideal (whether “literally” in the person of Yeshua bin Yusuf or figuratively in the social body of the community of believers). I could only wish, at the moment when this woman threw her punch, that the actor playing Jesus had handed his cross to a soldier or bystander at that moment and reminded the woman to love her neighbour or to pray for her enemies, and then embraced the soldier before carrying on. In that, we would see something more like support for the form of the ethical Tirres claims this ritual supports.

Tirres closes with a rather self-congratulatory sort of disclaimer. Noting that “rituals are complex, contested, and messy” (40) he also declares, “It is not only the interpreter’s job to risk an interpretation of what these shared elements [of ritual] are, but more immediately, it is also the pastoral agent’s duty to inspire and encourage ritual participants to grow as individuals and as a community through ritual” (41).

While these might offer pertinent observations, we may note also how the weight of authority in this claim lands squarely (and only) on the experts who organise the event and the expert (Tirres) who interprets the events for us in a particular way. By contrast, we may recall, in this kind of context, Suttner’s (2005)[8] description of intellectuals: those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 130). By this distinction, we should see that the intellectual and the academic do not necessarily always overlap (though the academic may insist otherwise). From history we see that sometimes very non-scholarly or uneducated individuals have very ably performed the kind of intellectual function Suttner describes (i.e., to articulate a coherent account of the world for those in a particular class or nationally oppressed position who had not previously seen the world in that way), while many in academia fail completely in this task (because their work lacks any such solidarity or, worse, serves principally to reinforce the already dominant paradigm of the ruling class). Suttner continues:

[intellectuals] should be defined by the role they play, by the relationships they have to others. They are people who, broadly speaking, create for a class or people … a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. Intellectuals are crucial to the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world (see Gramsci 1971[9]: 418; Crehan 2002[10]: 129–30).

In a letter of 1931 Gramsci says his definition of an intellectual ‘is much broader than the usual concept of “the greater intellectuals”’ (1979: 204). In his Prison Notebooks, he writes:

What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance of the term ‘intellectual;” Can one find a unitary criterion to characterise equally all the diverse and disparate activities of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations (1971: 8. emphasis added).

In the same way a worker is not characterized by the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out, but by ‘performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations’ (117–8).

It remains an open question whether Tirres embodies an intellectual or an academic, though at present the weight of evidence falls more toward the latter already. His narrow interest in solving the “problem” of integral liberation theology, especially as he sees a necessary step in this in reconstructing Dewey’s religious philosophy, does not point to giving a coherent account of a historically oppressed people’s position. Moreover, while invoking the voiceless as a subject of his discourse, he gives the names of those in authority while leaving nameless—unworthy of specific recognition—women involved in the project he describes. He relies upon the authority of his own interpretive lens—assuring us that this amounts to a necessary step—without counterbalancing his monologic authority with other voices, except those he elects to include. The fact that he at one point confesses to a (temporary) misunderstanding of the ritual he witnesses also throws his report into question. And, of course, his pedigree as a Catholic that he starts the chapter with marks him (and his interpretive framework) as valid vis-à-vis Catholic ritual but invalid vis-à-vis those individuals who do not share his Catholic commitments.

This comes across most plainly when he claims, apparently in all seriousness, that this spectacular display of Catholic power in San Antonio has a main purpose of collapsing the distinction between “us” and “them”. A more minor version of this glaring lapse arises also when we consider the “us” of academic theologians in general versus the “them” of an affected laity, but also that disparity of “us” and “them” that Tirres hopes to bridge in his work, between US and South American Latino/a liberation theologians.

Whatever dialogue Tirres claims to set up, it (of necessity) represents a monologue conducted by one authoritative speaking voice (his own) and the representation he constructs of any would-be dialogist (South American liberation theologians, competing US Latino/a liberation theologians, the Vatican, or anyone else, &c). This problem of representation arises continually in all work, and it falls upon the scholar (that is: the consensus holds it a standard part of scholarly procedure) to fairly and accurately represent the voice of the Other as much as possible.[11] Nonetheless, in a context of liberation theology, where the representation of the voiceless takes centre stage as one of the most fundamental problems in the first place, this conventional scholarly accession to representing the Other becomes garishly problematic. The suppression of a woman’s name and her actual words go from an arguably harmless error in other contexts to a red flag about the sincerity or self-awareness of Tirres’ project. Similarly, his disclaimer above about a plurality of interpretations, again a harmless error in many contexts, resonates with authoritarianism here, all the more when he offers an apologetics for his duty to provide an interpretation. Or, again, his opening autobiographical account, which positions him in some ways as especially intimately and personally connected to the performance of passion plays (his uncle played Jesus), shifts not so subtly from a sort of ethnographic acknowledgment of his position to something more like a claim to especial insight around the Good Friday liturgies—a claim bolstered, of course, by his academic pedigree at Princeton and Harvard as well.

Reading his description of the Good Friday liturgies, two things especially stand out to me. Not in any particular order, first he discloses to us that he had special access to the event organisers. Like a backstage VIP, his displays his privileged access to the planning, rationale, and deployment of the Good Friday liturgies. In this context, he names and quotes these movers and shakers, while leaving nameless some woman who merely “is a long-time cast member of the via crucis”.

Second, in his more or less experiential spectatorship of the rituals themselves, a strong sense of spiritual tourism comes across. Despite his privileged access to the event planners, he nevertheless gets fooled by some of the tropes the organisers devise to create greater immediacy in the participants. Not, of course, that an ethnographer should loser herself while witnessing a “native performance,” but a key part of Tirres’ authority rests on his intimate connect with the events depicted. It seems as if he experiences the Good Friday liturgy not simply in small surprising details (such as that noted above) but overall—as if the immediacy and relevance of the Passion Play itself for the first time (as an adult) drove itself home to him all over again. Thus, he seems to “discover” a solution to the problem of a modern lack of faith in this cleverly contrived theatrical fiction.

But if the ritual succeeds in re-galvanising his own “marriage” of the aesthetic and ethical, should we understand this as the ritual function for most of the participants. For those who already live, for the most part, no disjunction between the aesthetic and the ethical, they have no need for such “integration”. For the woman who threw a punch at the “Roman soldier,” it appears she has already thoroughly integrated the aesthetic and ethical, to such a degree that she violates the expectations of the bewildered actor playing the soldier. And if this thrown punch signals at least one kind of integration of the aesthetic and the ethical, then Tirres should answer how this kind of violence will not generally result from the project he advances. We can say the woman gets it wrong, just like those people who would scream at Joan Collins because of a character she played on TV. Much as we might agree this amounts to a “wrong” response, it nevertheless shows itself as an response and one that Tirres fails to take seriously.[12]

Of course, we can pay a sort of easy lip service to values that contradict such violence on the part of this ritual participant, but facile disclaimers don’t get us toward actually ensuring that we compose rituals that inhibit, rather than exacerbate, a tendency to violence.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Eliade, M. (2005). The myth of the eternal return: Cosmos and history (Vol. 46): Princeton University Press

[4] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)

[5] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here

[6] One may find any number of objections to this text, not the least of which how it embodies anthropological work prior to the self-conscious turn that the discipline of anthropology has so thoughtfully and extensively explored. Like much (British) work from this era, it typically happens that the (empirically) observed data—keeping in mind the question of what an anthropologist even notices in the first place—tends to retain its validity even when the interpretive scheme to analyse that data reeks of imperialism, racism, sexism, orientalism, and so forth.

[7] Traditions do exist at passions plays that do emphasize one’s role as a Roman in the execution of Yeshua bin Yusuf. Such “guilt trips” may have transformative (ethical) implications as well, but Tirres elects not to draw attention to these traditions.

[8] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed.

[9] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[10] Crehan, K. (2002). Gramsci, culture and anthropology, London: Pluto Press (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[11] Why one must or should resort to an expository format that requires this kind of representation, rather than arranging a more literally dialogic form of book, suggests its own line of analysis.

[12] We may offer a nasty explanation for this in that the “us” and “them” of this ritual sees no problem of such violence. That the faithful should physically attack, if not kill, the infidel represents a perfectly acceptable outcome.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Perhaps a very subtle condemnation of museums as institutions, which makes a lovely irony if a museum (the Louvre) essentially commissioned it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: E. Bilal’s (2014)[2] Phantoms of the Louvre

I have much less to say about this book than I wanted to. Since Bilal has proven himself one of the most reliable graphic novelists I have encountered—amongst his works I’ve acquired, his (1992)[3] Nikopol Trilogy, though perhaps his most famous piece, pales next to (1984)[4] The Hunting Party and (1998)[5] The Dormant Beast—I squeaked with delight when I saw this book on the shelf.

Unfortunately, this amounts to merely a plump piece for some kind of special event for the Louvre. As a sort of “completest” gesture that includes a series of 22 phantoms, it resembles Dali’s (1985)[6] “tarot deck,” which features little if any interesting original work and simply rehashes stuff already done; ditto with Giger’s (1994)[7] tarot deck as well.

Each various photograph of some piece in the Louvre then gets a phantom painted over it and an biographical blurb about this imagined phantom. Whatever blend of fact, fiction, and fantasy Bilal concocts—da Vinci, for instance, turns out to have a hankering after hi male models—none of the narratives accumulate into anything. Each stands quite alone, in stark contrast (for instance) to how Sergio Toppi in his phenomenal and gorgeous (2012)[8] Sharaz-De arranges (or actually composes anew) a sequence of stories that builds and accumulates in meaning. The only two things any of Bilal’s narratives have in common: (1) each ghost attaches to some aspect of the Louvre (sometimes a room or space in the Louvre and not a piece that has wound up there), and (2) most of the time the phantom has a literal artistic link to the piece in question, either being a model in the painting or somehow an artist who contributed to the piece.

In as much as the pieces selected range over a very wide swatch of human history geographically and temporally, Bilal does provide a very internationally diverse selection of ghosts. It suggests the same kind of gesture Wim Wenders aimed for by internationalizing his casts to a vast degree and incorporating multiple languages into his film—an attempt to capture the (literally) cosmopolitan nature of European life. Bilal comes to a necessity of ethnic multiplicity by a less urbane manner, but his work too shows the (often more tense) intersection of large numbers of people from different countries, particularly in The Hunting Party. So perhaps this element tempted him to say yes to the Louvre’s project, painting a sort of “human ark” in a way that points—though I don’t think deliberately or intentionally—at Sokurov’s (2003)[9] Russian Ark.

But whatever the case, Bilal expends very little effort on the art. Perhaps, at some abstract level, he sees the human face or head he appends on top of the Louvre original as a kind of dialogue (with the piece), but just as the specific biographies seem disconnected from one another (however witty at times), very little of any of the phantoms have any captivating aesthetic interest—at least not relative to other work by Bilal.

Ultimately, this looks like he recognized a good opportunity for self-promotion, and he tossed off the minimum required by the project to get it out the door.

One possibly interesting wrinkle, however. To the extent that Bilal starts with photographs of extant pieces in the Louvre, one may say he then defaces them, though “deface” makes for an ironic verb, since he covers over the original partially with the phantom’s face. We might consider this work as a piece of covert (but out in the open) vandalism.

In his brief introduction, Bilal addresses the fact that (simply for reasons of space) some ultra-famous pieces in the Louvre got left out.[10] Of these otherwise unnamed ultra-famous pieces, the Mona Lisa does not get left out. And I have to add, for two of the pieces, Bilal selects architectural elements of the Louvre.

Let me draw some of the strands for this “case” together. Unable to include all of the ultra-famous pieces, Bilal nonetheless “sacrifices” two of his twenty-two narratives to architectural features of the Louvre. And of the ultra-famous pieces left out, the most ultra-famous piece of all does not get left out.

As a plump piece for the Louvre, one might imagine a line item in Bilal’s contract that specifically prohibits him from excluding the Mona Lisa no matter how much he wants to. But, on the other hand, if one were to decide what ultra-famous piece to leave out—as an artistic kind of statement—then the Mona Lisa certainly tops that list.[11] So, the presence of the Mona Lisa in this book seems like a sort of glaring inclusion, and to this one may add Bilal’s enthusiastic expansion of the miasma of homosexuality surrounding da Vinci. Depending upon how up on scholarship the reader, candidly parading da Vinci around as a sodomite might well read to many as a (deliberate and perverse) defacement of one of the loftiest figures of Occidental art history we have.

But we could take this gesture as a kind of key for looking at the whole book generally. One might imagine a certain kind of dudgeon, that Bilal (virtually a rock star in France as an artist) should get asked to participate in a project to promote the Louvre when none of his own work hangs there. Add to this a kind of glass-ceiling effect, since Bilal does not come from France originally—so this becomes as “close” to the Louvre as the gatekeepers will allow this admittedly celebrated barbarian. As such, the slap-dash work—below Bilal’s usual richness and detail (hobbled all the more by the “absurd” constraint, either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the project’s handlers)—again marks a literal defacement of these ”monuments of civilization”. So much so that Bilal declines to included 22 works in the Louvre and spends two of his pieces on architectural features of the Louvre (however attractive or not).

Moreover, in his selection of pieces and ghosts, Bilal goes out of his way to amplify or deface the canon of Europe—amongst the famous names of painters (Delacroix, Dürer, Rembrandt, &c) his ghosts range over countries and entities (and histories) not necessarily well-represented in the Louvre. Here, the slap-dash work (again) shows contempt for, and offers an implicit critic, of a canon that has (1) helped starve any number of artists but almost, much more pointedly (2) provided the “evidence” of Occidental civilization that has travelled the globe and slaughtered people either deemed not aesthetic enough or only as aesthetic as their eroticizing or orientalising gazers deemed them.

Similarly, behind all of these “lofty works of art,” Bilal’s biographies pull the curtain back on the performance, so to speak, and show us the nitty and the gritty, the skirts and the dirt, involved in the lofty production of such art: the exploitation (sexual and financial) of poor models, the tawdry involvements of supposedly great minds, the Nazi sympathies of at least one phantom in the Louvre. Nothing of this sort of scandal ever topples one of the Immortals, at least not with the passage of a century or five. No one thinks of the Vitruvian man as possible porn anymore, &c. And the messiness Bilal lays out in these fictional (or fictionalized) pseudo-biographies doesn’t puncture or demean the loftiness of the pieces, though not because the gesture comprises something other than a kind of defacement.

Still, having said all of this, if the book doesn’t stand as merely a half-assed toss-off because the Louvre pays well, then it runs the immemorial peril of trying to elevate the banal; i.e., the book might aim to make “boring” or “dull” or “non-engaging” into an interesting theme. Always tricky to do, and rarely a success, and even less rarely on purpose with malice aforethought.[12] Little gives one reason to pay attention to Bilal’s contributions here, even in the various decisions as to how he will (or did) photograph the piece that serves as a jumping off for each. And because the phantoms, much like the paintings in the Louvre, have no necessary connection to one another, but just happen to hang next to something on the wall, the “total effect” (both of the museum, the book, and the phantoms) winds up mostly absent.

This, again, illuminates a critique of the Occidental canon as a disparately non-meaningful heap. One visits the museum of Bilal’s book and you come away with a hollow feeling, of having basically wasted time, although you got a chuckle out of a given piece or two. This has next to nothing to do with the inherent aesthetic merit of any given piece (or the affective merit of any give phantom’s biography) and everything to do with the vacuity and emptiness of the gesture of a museum in the first place.

By contrast, whatever conceit a library might make or not make toward some degree of completeness in its collection, it does not especially pretend that one’s primary activity inside of it amounts to wandering and browsing. Even if you go with some vague notion to “check out a book” (though you don’t know which one, this differs fundamentally from a museum, where a picture says a thousand words and each piece (on the wall, behind glass) imposes its presence on you, so to speak, and demands you look at and take account of it.

Thus Bilal’s book similarly points up the hollowness of the museum as a gesture, without necessarily casting aspersions on the content of the pieces (or the quality of writing for the phantoms’ biographies) themselves. The seeming laziness of Bilal’s contribution makes for the sort of necessary gesture in order to openly covertly mock the Louvre (and all museums) as an institution, as it were.

I think one may say that Bilal has included enough markers in his book to warrant this kind of reading. The pretentiousness of the Louvre, the supposed compliment of being invited to participate in promoting it when the museum would never include your work on the walls—or, worse, they will include the pieces Bilal did for this book and so his presence on the walls serves only as an advertisement—the various gestures of defacement, both literal and in accord with the traditions of art history, and very aspects of Bilal’s own autobiography and creative thematics all permit a conclusion that he has flagrantly snubbed the Louvre. In this respect, he appears as the twenty-third phantom of the Louvre, the invisible figure who either creates or stand tangentially related to a piece of art.

Unfortunately, this still leaves the book only more interesting to think about than read, but perhaps the Louvre suffers the same fate. One can get more out of it by thinking about it, rather than going there, so to speak. Again, this says nothing about the specific, often aesthetically profound experience of standing in front of some work of art. Rather, it points to the sum experience of going—the phenomenologically bizarre, inappropriate, and anachronistic experience of going from a three thousand year old bronze helmet to a painting by some anonymous Dutchman, &c.

Bilal also parodies the museum experience in that he provides more text than image. More precisely, each painting begins with a black page and the phantom’s name along with various witty variations on basic birth information; the next page overlays Bilal’s image on whatever original he defaces. And then the next panel presents a smaller version of the original, with its own conventional “vital statistics” (and provenance). Beside this miniature with its pedigree, Bilal provides a whole page of phantom biography, with preliminary sketch version of the phantom on the page.

Over and over and over Bilal repeats this formula, also to the point of too much familiarity and boredom, just as happens in museums. But he has tampered with the proportions, because not only do the vital statistics for the paintings run at least as large as the small-reproduced original, the phantom’s biography totally dominate the page, suggesting the bloatedness of art history scholarship that typically occupies a greater (explanatory) space than the painting itself. As if the original cannot, in fact, stand on its own, but must come with this intense degree of apparatus to keep it propped up, or at least to intimidate the viewer into accepting someone else’s designation that this, friends, comprises an immortal masterpiece.

Not to suggest that all art history scholarship should get thrown out, that no work of Occidental art (included in the Louvre or not) offers little more than dreck, or that viewers can’t have profound aesthetic experiences in museums—I only suggest that Bilal may have broad-stroked a criticism of the pretentious of museums (and the Louvre in general) in its conceits to curate such scholarship or works of art, or provide the opportunity to encounter profound works.

If Bilal’s book “fails,” it does so because the format of the museum as a totality does not do and cannot do what it claims to. But whether Bilal did this deliberately or simply accidentally as a consequence of working in a museum in the first place, like a museum, he still gets paid when people stroll through (his pages).

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing, 1–144.

[3] Bilal, E. (2005). La trilogie Nikopol: Casterman

[4] Bilal, E., & Christin, P. (1990). The hunting party: Catalan Communications

[5] Bilal, E. (1998). The dormant beast. Humanoids Publishing.

[6] Pollack, R., & Dalí, S. (1985). Salvador Dali’s tarot: Michael Joseph

[7] Akron, Giger, H., Designer, M., Giger, H., Designer, P., & Giger, H. (1994). Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt: Urania-Verlags-AG

[8] Toppi, S (2012). Sharaz-de: tales from the Arabian Nights. Fort Lee, NJ: Archaia

[9] Sokurov, A., Deryabin, A., Meure, J., & Stöter, K. (2003). Russian ark: Artificial Eye.

[10] He specifically excuses his choices by saying he only painted the phantoms that appeared to him. Not all pieces have phantoms, and some of the phantoms of the most famous pieces, he says, turned out very pedestrian bores, not worth painting.

[11] This elision might resemble that moment when two famous artists—I’ve forgotten their names—went to the Louvre to view the empty place where the Mona Lisa had been stolen from.

[12] Robbe-Grillet’s (1957) Jealousy may offer a successful example.

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